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Theoretical Basis of Situation Crime Prevention

The theoretical basis for situational crime prevention can be found in the classical philosophies of crime. The fundamental premise of this philosophy is that all humans are rational and calculating beings, able to assess the costs and benefits of an action. According to this view, crime would occur when the offender calculated that the costs of a criminal act (such as the chances of apprehension) were outweighed by the benefits. Thus, classical writers, such as Beccaria, believed that in order to prevent crimes, the costs (punishments/pains) must outweigh the benefits (pleasures).

Ultimately Beccaria believed that if the appropriate punishment was administered swiftly crime rates would fall. In contemporary times classical assumptions, such as these, have been expressed through 'rational choice theory'. When examining human behaviour rational choice theorists, such as Clarke, employ the principles of 'methodological individualism'. In other words, they assume that social actions are merely the actions of individuals exercising free choice. For rational choice theorists, only individuals 'act' and since crime is a human action, the prevention of it demands the manipulation of individual choices (rather than, say, the manipulation of social inequalities).

A more recent concept, crime as opportunity, has obvious links with this approach (Mayhew, Clarke, Sturman & Hough, 1976). This perspective assumes that the decision to commit a crime is taken freely and actively and that the decision to offend is made in response to the immediate circumstances and immediate situation in which the offence is contemplated. The decision to offend is based upon the actor's calculation of the costs and benefits (Nicholson, 1995). Rather than assuming that offenders are driven by some external factor, this perspective assumes that they act rationally in response to opportunities that arise. The implication of this analysis is that if the opportunity can be removed, the level of crime can be reduced. Advocates of this approach such as Clarke (1980) argued that crime prevention methods should take greater account of particular situations where crimes are committed and of the thinking that offenders might undertake.

Using a range of security strategies to protect property such as locks, alarms, barriers, CCTV, security guards and so on should increase the 'costs' of crime (for example, by increasing the chances of apprehension), therefore making commission of the offence less likely. Clarke and his followers therefore aimed to prevent crime by manipulating the environment in which offences take place.

A more recent influence on situational crime prevention has come through 'routine activities' theory. This theory maintains that, for a crime to occur three elements must converge in time and space:

As routine activities disperse people away from their families and homes, it is claimed that offenders will, increasingly, identify suitable targets.

Moreover, with the decline of traditional communities, it is said that the informal social controls that contributed towards capable guardianship has decreased. Although in practice routine activity theory has tended to focus on targets and guardians, rather than offenders, it has obvious links to the opportunity-based approaches described above. In particular, the theory tries to embed the concept of opportunity within the routine activities of people's everyday lives and, by so doing, emphasises the spatial and temporal dimensions of opportunity. Like all situational approaches, routine activities theory also promises policy-makers instrumental and quantifiable solutions to crime. As one leading proponent of routine activities theory puts it:

Count television sets, monitor their portability, check their location... Look at hourly patterns of activity and where people are on the map. Check parental position vis--vis their own children and patterns of recognition among neighbours. Like physics and physiology, criminogenesis derives from a movement of physically bounded and identifiable entities about the physical world - movements that can be tracked according to map, clock and calendar. (Felson cited in Pease, 1997, p. 966)

Before situational strategies are discussed in more depth it is useful to consider some other approaches that have influenced the situational approach.