Choice Theory

The choice theory of criminology is otherwise known as the classical theory. The underlying concepts of this theory are that people chose all behavior, including criminal behavior; people's choices can be controlled by the fear of punishment; and that the more severe, certain, and swift the punishment, the greater its ability to control criminal behavior.

Cesare Beccaria was the founder of the classical theory. He wrote about punishment, and its effects on criminal behavior. His theory was that punishment should have four main objectives. The first is to prevent all criminal offenses. The second is when it cannot prevent a crime, it should convince the offender to commit a lesser crime. The third is to ensure that a criminal uses no more force than is necessary. Finally, the fourth is to prevent crime as cheaply as possible.

The choice theory came into being when the classical theory became popular again in the 1970s. James Wilson, a political scientist, stated that efforts should be made to reduce criminal opportunity by deterring would-be offenders and incarcerating known criminals. Following this resurgence of the classical theory, there was a political shift towards a more conservative public policy when Ronald Reagan was elected. This new choice theory is based on intelligent thought processes and criminal decision making. It is also known today as the rational choice theory.

Rational choice is the decision to commit a specific type of crime, and a matter of personal decision making based on weighing the available information. Rational choice theorists view crime as both offense- and offender specific. Offense-specific crime refers to the fact that offenders will react selectively to the characteristics of particular offenses. Offender-specific crime refers to the fact that criminals are not simply driven people who for one reason or another engage in random antisocial behavior. Before deciding to partake in crime, they analyze whether they have the prerequisites for committing a criminal act, including their skills, needs, and fears. They believed that crime is an event and that criminal behavior is a personality trait. According to a choice theorist, Robert Agnew, those people who choose crime over conformity share a number of personal traits. They perceive freedom of movement and lack of social constraints, they have less self-control than other people and seem unaffected by fear of social controls, and they are typically under stress or facing some serious personal problems or conditions that force them to choose risky behavior.

As well, choice theorists have studied that the decision to commit a crime, regardless of its substance, is structured by the choice of where the crime occurs, the characteristics of the target, and the means available for its completion. It has been shown that criminals appear to choose the place of the crime based on how likely it is that they will be caught. They also choose their targets, which are usually high-income households ($25,000 or more annually) for property crimes, and low-income households for the targets of violent crimes. Also, criminals report that learning the techniques of crime help them avoid detection.

Routine activities also make up part of the choice theory. It shows that the crime rates correspond to the number of motivated criminals. These motivated criminals are the teenage males, drug users and unemployed adults who commit crimes. Most offenders say that they commit crimes because they considered legitimate opportunities unavailable to people with their limited education and background. These motivated criminals will not commit crimes unless they have suitable targets available and the opportunity to attack them. Motivated offenders must also have the opportunity to commit crimes. To sum up the choice theory, rational choice involves both the shaping of criminality and structuring of crime.