Criminal Acts and Choices


We live in a world of choice; a world where we need to make choices to survive and enjoy and this applies to criminals and their world. People are determined by their behaviors that depend on the choices they make and therefore the choice theories are important in understanding people’s behaviors. There are several choice theories that apply to criminology and they are all based on people’s behavior and their ability to control their thinking as well as activities. The choice theories assume that only an individual is in control of his behaviors and therefore he or she can only give information to other people. The theory, therefore, claims that giving of information is totally by choice.

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The rational choice theory

The theory is based on man’s logical behavior and it claims that man’s actions are based on the cost of input and benefits of outcome. The theory implies that man weighs the benefits from each of his undertakings considering the efforts put in the venture and the returns. Criminals are humans and therefore based on the rational theory, they choose to commit or not to commit a crime based on the efforts and benefits. The rational choice theory is behind the reasoning in most crime and criminal undertakings (Cohen & Felson, 1997). This statement implies that before engaging in crime the criminal weighs the benefits from the crime as well as their input in the activity. This shows that in order to control crime criminologists can either increase the input in criminal activity or reduce the benefits from the criminal activity. Tewksbury & Mustaine (2005) argues that the choice of any criminal activity is determined by the potential risks and outcome from the criminal activity. The two scholars continue to argue that the difference between the gains and the efforts determines the suitable or potential targets for criminal activities.

As identified by Felson (1997), gain and inputs in criminal activity are controlled by three factors that are; suitable targets, lack of authority figure, and availability of an offender. Felson continued to argue that interaction in these factors determines the level and vulnerability of crime in an area. The factors also determine the reasons for repeated crime among certain people. The choice theory not only applies to criminal and their activities but also the authority and victimization. Criminology researchers have proved that victimization is highly dependent on the choice theory since any criminal accusations are based on logic. The authorities determine and accuse criminals based on the gains and losses from the resultant accusations.

Deterrence theory

The deterrence theory relates the gains and input in criminal activity with the punishment the criminal suffers in case they are caught. This theory is therefore based on the uncertainty of being caught and punished considering the potential gains from successful criminal activity. According to Meyers (2005), this theory can be further categorized into general theory, specific theory, and marginal theory. This theory is important in criminology and it assumes logic among lawbreakers and law enforcers. According to this theory, criminals view crime as an opportunity and therefore the attractiveness of a criminal activity determines the level of involvement in the activity. The willingness of the criminal also determines the level of criminal activities in an area and it is based on choice. The theory, therefore, proposes that the cost of a criminal activity determines the willingness of the criminals and on the other hand, the willingness of the criminals determines the cost of the criminal activity. The theory also suggests that the uncertainty of being caught determines the severity of punishment (Nagin 1998).

The deterrence theory, therefore, links the likelihood of a crime in an area to the probability of being caught and the punishment rewarded to the criminal. The theory implies that criminals will engage in crime that has fewer risks of being caught and greater rewards. The theory also implies that criminals also gauge the severity of the punishment in a crime before engaging in it. This argument also implies that criminals will engage in high-risk crimes for a good reward. This choice of crime and criminal activities has a connection with models that society uses to determine crime.

The consensus model

The consensus model is the most common model applied by a society in determining which acts are criminal and which ones are not. The model is based on the assumption that in any society there is an informal agreement on which acts are criminal and which ones are not. The consensus model depends on the choice theory since society groups criminal activities based on their reward to the criminals and the loss to the society (Schmallager, 2009).

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The conflict model

This model is based on morals and therefore a criminal act in a society is determined based on moral standards. The theory assumes that morals vary from one society to another and that morals within a society are well known to every individual. This model implies that any criminal activity is based purely on choice since the criminals are aware of moral standards within society.


Cohen, L. & M. Felson. (1979). “Social change and crime rate trends: A routine activities approach.” American Sociological Review 44, 588-08.

Felson, M. (1997). Business and crime prevention. New York: Criminal Justice Press.

Mustaine, E., & Tewksbury, R. (1997). Obstacles in the assessment of routine activity theory. Social Pathology 3(3), 177-194.

Myers, D. (2005). Deterrence: General and specific. Encyclopedia of Criminology, Vol 1. New York: Routledge.

Nagin, D. (1998). Criminal deterrence research at the outset of the twenty-first century: Crime and justice. A Review of Research 23:1-42.

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Schmallager, F. (2009). Criminal justice today (10th ed.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

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