Rational Choice Theory

The rational choice theory is one of many criminological theories. Larry Siegel, a professor of Criminal Justice for over 40 years, defines criminology as “the study of the nature, extent, cause, and control of criminal behavior.” Theories are then developed through observed crime patterns, including the trait theory, the psychological theories, and the rational choice theory. The rational choice theory is the one view of crime that has been most widely accepted throughout history.
It was an Italian social thinker, Cesare Beccaria, that developed the rational choice theory in the mid-eighteenth century. Cesare Beccaria, out to abolish cruel punishment, was one of the first scholars to develop a theory of why people commit criminal acts in universal terms and not religious terms. People viewed crime as a demonic act against society and the views’ only emphasis was on punishment for the criminal act and included no preventative aspect for solutions.
Classical criminology, according to Siegel, is the view that “people have free will to choose criminal or conventional behaviors, people choose to commit crime for reasons of greed or personal need, and that crime could be controlled only by the fear of criminal punishment.” Beccaria believed that people are rational thinkers and weigh risks against benefits when contemplating whether to commit a criminal act. Before the eighteenth century, the accused had almost no rights and Beccaria also believed that the punishment should fit the crime and pointed out flaws within our criminal justice system, prompting reform.
This theory brought about crime prevention, deterrence, incarceration, incapacitation and the most severe form of punishment adopted at this time was the death penalty. To prevent crime, rational choice theorists believed that criminals could be discouraged from criminal acts by increasing the effort needed to commit a crime, increasing the risk of committing crime, and reducing the rewards of crime. General deterrence came from the belief that people would not commit crimes if they feared the punishment for that criminal act. Believing that people are rational thinkers, Beccaria’s general deterrence theory was that the greater the severity, certainty, and speed of legal sanctions, the lower the crime rate would be. Specific deterrence, incarceration, and incapacitation are systems used on people who have already committed a criminal act, to keep them from committing future acts of crime. Specific deterrence is the view that criminal sanctions be so powerful that offenders will never repeat their criminal acts. Specific deterrence includes incarceration and incapacitation to keep known criminals out of society, reducing the crime rate by limiting opportunity to commit crime. This deterrence theory has brought about changes in criminal policies and laws, which has benefits as well as costs.
The benefit can sometimes become very expensive for taxpayers. For example, to prevent crime there would be the need to increase patrol and/or create preventative programs and will in turn increase taxes. Prevention also comes in the form of better lighting for dark areas, cameras, and monitors which again requires funding. Prevention is as simple as keeping valuables out of sight and marking them for future detection, costing nothing. All of these prevention methods do have beneficial results in lowering crime in high rate areas, but other areas are then affected by diffusion. Diffusion is when the criminal seeks an easier place or the offender goes on to commit a different type of crime. The benefits of these deterrent methods are keeping society safe by detaining and/or monitoring known criminals. However, the costs of these methods are extremely high. To detain a person in jail or prison consists of housing, education, health, and food expenses for each one incarcerated. This increases the load on taxpayers, leaving society to foot the bill for crimes committed by others.
The rational choice theory explains the reasoning behind most criminal acts, but does not explain why a person would commit a criminal act while walking in their sleep or while in the heat of the moment. This is due to the fact that rational thinking cannot be done at these times. The rational choice theory differs from the trait theory or the biological theories, in which these two theories state that there is an inherited trait or a biological makeup, making people commit crimes. The trait theory and the biological theory, based on physical aspects, tried to detect criminally apt people to prevent crime. These two theories claim that the person has no control and cannot help themselves, having an uncontrollable urge to commit crime. However, these theories cannot explain why someone without the traits or biological make-up would commit a criminal act. The rational choice theory is effective in explaining the reasons for crime and provides solutions. Ronald Akers states, “Rational choice has inspired some empirical work on decision making in specific crime and crime events as well as in criminal justice policy, both of which were projects that might not otherwise have been done.”
The rational choice theory was developed within the classical criminology view. “These classical ideas declined in the nineteenth century, partly because of the rise of science and partly because its principles did not take into account differences among people nor the way the crime was committed” according to George Cole. After about a hundred years and a few theories later, classical criminology took a new life when scholars argued that although crimes may result from rational thinking, differences among people cannot be overlooked. This theory is still the most widely accepted theory of criminology today.


Akers, Ronald. (1990). The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-)
Vol. 81, No. 3 , pp. 653-676, Northwestern University. Retrieved Dec. 5, 2010, from JSTOR database. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1143850

Cole, George & Smith, Christopher. (2011). Criminal Justice In America. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Siegel, Larry. (2011). Criminology: The Core. Belmont: Wadworth.

Siegel, Larry & Senna, Joseph. (2009). Introduction To Criminal Justice. Belmont: Wadsworth.


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