Routine Activity Theory is a criminology theory that explains how patterns of people’s routine activities create opportunities for criminal activity.
For example, a person’s routine activity of leaving home at 8.45am and returning home at 5pm means their home will predictably be vulnerable from 8.45am to 5pm every day.
The theory posits that crime is more likely to occur when three key elements converge in time and space:
- A motivated offender
- A suitable target
- The absence of capable guardians
The theory emphasizes that changes in societal patterns, such as shifts in employment, demographics, or technology, can lead to changes in the prevalence and types of crime.
By understanding these dynamics, policymakers and law enforcement agencies can work to reduce opportunities for crime and develop strategies to protect potential targets and enhance the presence of capable guardians.
Whereas other criminology theories focus on individual and personal behavioral traits to explain crime, routine activities theory puts more emphasis on developing a safe environment.
Routine Activities Theory Overview
The routine activities theory, developed by criminologists Lawrence E. Cohen and Marcus Felson (1979), examines crime rate trends in terms of everyday routine life within an environment.
Central to this theory is the idea that the environment and activities within the environment leave the door open for criminal activities. As Turvey (2013, p. 97) explains:
“…the choice to commit an act of fraud does not occur in a vacuum […] the question becomes the degree to which they were constrained or encouraged by their environment along the way.”
As a result, this theory advocates that public policy makers would find greatest success in changing the environment rather than targeting individual criminals.
Cohen and Felson (1979) believe that three convergent factors within an environment (such as a neighborhood) will lead to crime: motivated offenders, suitable targets, and the absence of capable guardians.
However (and very importantly), the absence of any one of these elements can prevent a crime.
Routine Activities Theory Examples
- Installing Street Lights: A person chooses not to go down a dark private alley at night, they instead walk in a well-lit public place. The installation of the streetlights has removed the ‘suitable target’ factor.
- Empty Houses: Due to more women going to work since the 1960s, houses in residential areas have less guardianship, which could make the houses ‘suitable targets’ for crime.
- Neighborhood Poverty: Someone commits a crime due to living in a poverty-stricken environment. Here, the crime is committed out of necessity, representing the ‘motivated offender’ element.
- Red Light Cameras: An intersection that has lots of high-speed accidents has a red-light camera installed. The red light camera becomes the ‘responsible guardian’ that decreases the likelihood that people will try to run the red lights.
- Technology in Homes: During the 1950s-1970s there was an increase in value in the goods people were buying (e.g., televisions, stereos, electronics). This caused an increase in theft related crimes because the goods were ‘suitable targets’ that could be resold on the black market with ease.
- Wearing Jewelry: A person chooses to not wear expensive watches and clothes while walking through a notoriously dangerous neighborhood with higher crime rates. The jewelry is a ‘suitable target’.
- Tourism Areas: Increasing levels of tourism in an inner city suburb has attracted pickpockets to the area. Here, crime follows suitable targets.
- Lack of Security Guards: A bank has a clear absence of security guards and police officers, making them a target for potential crime. Here, there is ‘absence of capable guardians’.
- Lack of Gates: A large mansion does not have a gate, security cameras, or a home security system, which could make it an easy target for home invasion. In this scenario, there is ‘absence of capable guardians’.
- Bitter Dispute: A man is forced by the government to sell his house to a developer who builds a high-rise building where he used to live. The man seeks revenge by spraying paint all over the high-rise windows late at night after security leaves. Here, we have a motivated offender with a suitable target and no capable guardians.
This theory can be applied in various contexts, including understanding crime trends and patterns, evaluating crime prevention strategies, and designing public spaces.
1. Understanding crime trends and patterns
Routine activities theory is used to evaluate trends within and across neighborhoods.
Often, this is down by analyzing the correlation between changes in routine activities in a given area (such as work hours, commuting patterns, and social habits) and changes in crime patterns (Turvey, 2013).
From here, we can identify situations where the three elements of routine activities theory converge, and address the important elements within the area.
2. Evaluating crime prevention strategies
Routine activities theory can be used to assess the effectiveness of various crime prevention initiatives.
For example, after an intervention, policy makers can evaluate whether strategies such as increased police presence (correlating with increasing capable guardianship), improved street lighting (reducing suitable targets), or neighborhood watch programs (capable guardianship) can reduce crime.
In other words, by understanding the underlying principles of RAT, policymakers can both develop and assess crime prevention strategies that directly address the three key factors in routine activities theory (Farrell et al., 2005).
3. Designing public spaces
Urban planners can apply RAT principles when designing public spaces. The key idea here would be to minimize opportunities for crime.
This concept is often referred to as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED).
By incorporating principles of natural surveillance (such as increasing open line of sight within public spaces) and access control (such as gated communities), public spaces can be designed in a way that promotes capable guardianship and reduces suitable targets (Nazaretian & Fitch, 2021).
For example, installing transparent fences instead of opaque ones can increase natural surveillance and controlling access to buildings using secure entry systems can reduce the number of suitable targets for criminals.
Case Studies and Research Basis
1. Empty Houses
Due to more women going to work in the second half of the 20th Century, houses in residential areas had less guardianship, which caused an uptick in house burglaries.
The change in the working dynamic of the average American household post WWII through the 1970s, caused a trend of houses being left unguarded; meaning no one was home during the day.
Often, children are attending school and both the father and mother were working, creating a new routine within the neighborhood that caused residential houses to be targeted.
Cohen & Felson (1979) explain:
“…while police action is analyzed widely, guardianship by ordinary citizens of one another and of property as they go about routine activities may be one of the most neglected elements in sociological research on crime, especially since it links seemingly unrelated social roles and relationships to the occurrence or absence of illegal acts”(p. 590).
2. Street Lights
One key focus of routine activities theory is to make changes to an environment in order to reduce the chances of there being a suitable target within the space.
For example, Nazaretian & Fitch (2021) found that public policy is most effective when it focuses on “reducing the opportunity for crime to occur in places it already had occurred.”
For example, placing street lights in high-crime areas can remove incentives for burglars while also helping individuals to have relatively safer routes home at night.
3. Easy Targets
An offender may be more motivated to commit a crime in an area if they know prior crimes in the area have gone unpunished.
For example, if many houses have been robbed in an affluent area and have gone unpunished, it may attract future robberies.
Farrell et al. (2005) explain that ” the motivated offender will often prefer to seek out a target established as suitable by prior victimisation to the unknown quantity of a new victim”(p. 15).
Similar crimes are repeated because the offender knows that they have been successful, and that they may also have a fairly high rate of success if they use the same targets.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Routine Activities Theory
|Simplicity and clarity: The theory provides a straightforward and easy-to-understand explanation of crime occurrence based on the convergence of three key elements (Argun & Daglar, 2016).||Limited scope: The theory primarily explains opportunistic, predatory crimes and may not be as effective in explaining more complex, organized criminal activities or white-collar crimes (Argun & Daglar, 2016).|
|Empirical support: Numerous studies have found empirical support for the theory, showing the relationship between routine activities and crime rates (e.g. Farrell et al., 2005; Hollis-Peel et al., 2011; Kitteringham & Fennelly, 2020).||Neglects individual motivations: The theory focuses on situational attributions and may not fully address individual motivations and psychological factors that contribute to criminal behavior (Nazaretian & Fitch, 2021).|
|Policy implications: The theory offers practical strategies for crime prevention, such as increasing capable guardians and reducing suitable targets, which can be applied in various contexts (Kitteringham & Fennelly, 2020).||Lack of focus on social factors: The theory does not address the underlying social factors or structural inequalities such as institutional discrimination that may contribute to crime and criminal motivations (Farrell et al., 2005).|
Cohen, L. E., & Felson, M. (1979). Social Change and Crime Rate Trends: A Routine Activity Approach. American Sociological Review, 44(4), 588–608. https://doi.org/10.2307/2094589
Farrell, G., Clark, K., Ellingworth, D., & Pease, K. (2005). Of Targets And Supertargets: A Routine Activity Theory Of High Crime Rates. Internet Journal of Criminology. 2005. www.internetjournalofcriminology.com.
Hollis-Peel, M. E., Reynald, D. M., Bavel, M., Elffers, H., & Welsh, B. C. (2011). Guardianship for crime prevention: a critical review of the literature. Crime, Law and Social Change, 56(1), 53-70. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10611-011-9309-2
Kitteringham, G., & Fennelly, L. J. (2020). Environmental crime control. Elsevier eBooks, 207-222. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-817273-5.00019-3
Nazaretian, Z., & Fitch, C. (2021). Comparing the lifestyles of victims: A routine activity theory assessment of repeat victimization in Canada. Journal of Community Safety and Well-Being, 6(2), 56-65. doi: https://doi.org/10.35502/jcswb.181
Turvey, B. E. (2013). Chapter 6 – Contrasting Scientific Integrity with Law Enforcement Culture. In Forensic Fraud (pp. 97–113). Academic Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-408073-7.00006-9
Argun, U., & Daglar, M. (2016). Examination of Routine Activities Theory by the property crime. International Journal of Human Sciences, 13(1), 1188. Doi: https://doi.org/10.14687/ijhs.v13i1.3665