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Routine Activity Theory and Residential Burglary

In the late 1970’s, routine activity theory, a sub category of crime opportunity theory, emerged as a key theoretical approach within criminology. Marcus Felson and Lawrence Cohen first proposed this theory in their explanations of crime rate changes within the United States from 1947 till 1974, which concluded that crime was opportunistic rather than planned and executed (Felson and Cohen 1979). Since then this theory has been extensively applied and become one of the most citied theories within criminology. However, unlike most criminology theories, routine activity theory examines how criminal events are produced, and closely relates crime to its environment along with emphasizing its ecological processes, in order to attempt to divert academic attention away from why/ the motivation for people to commit crimes.

Routine activity refers to the generalized patterns of social activities within society, or to a greater extent; spatial and temporal patterns in family, work and leisure activities. The theory of routine activity then suggests that the organization of routine activities in society create opportunities for crime. These routines allow crime to be either easy/ low risk, or difficult/ high risk. As opportunities vary over time and space, along with among different people, therefore so do the chances of crime.

So routine activity theory links a macro level situational model, using spatial and temporal patterns of routine activities in society, to a micro level situational model with the intent to explain why a crime occurs. The situational model stipulates that a criminal act occurs as a result of the convergence of three minimal elements in space and time:

  1. A motivated offender who is prepared to commit the offence.
  2. A suitable target, such as a human victim to be assaulted or a piece of property to be stolen.
  3. The absence of a capable guardian in order to prevent the crime

Without any of these three elements, Cohen and Felson argued that would be sufficient enough to prevent a crime from occurring.

The fundamentals of routine activity theory is that crime is relatively unaffected by macro economic and social changes, such as unemployment rates, poverty and inequality. As an example, post the Second World War, western countries’ economies, such as the UK and the United States, were booming and expanding significantly. However, despite this, crime had raised significantly during the time post the war (Cohen, 1989). Cohen and Felson argued that crime rates had increased post World War II, due to the routine activities of society beginning to shift away from homes, for example, more women had to have full time jobs, thus raising the likelihood that a motivated offender would converge in space and time with a suitable target in the absence of a capable guardian. Which is especially true for residential burglary, as when people perform routine activities away from their property, and their belongings are left unguarded without a capable guardian, a greater opportunity for crime to occur would be presented.

A significant contribution towards routine activity theory is the idea that opportunities of crime are unevenly spread throughout society, and neither are they infinite. There is instead a limit on the amount accessible targets viewed as attractive to the motivated offender. Cohen and Felson (1979) suggested that there were four main elements, which influence a target’s suitability for a criminal attack, as summarised by the acronym, VIVA (Value, Inertia, Visibility and Access). Therefore, offenders are only interested in targets that: have perceived value by the offender, either material or symbolic; have a size and weight that makes the offence possible, thus small electronic goods are stolen more often than heavier items; are physically visible to the potential offender; is also accessible to the potential offender.

This element of routine activity theory can further help us to understand residential burglary. As those whose routine activity takes them away from their homes, leaving their house as a suitable target, without a capable guardian to protect their belongings, making it easy/ low risk crime for an offender to carry out. Furthermore, with the four elements of a target’s suitability brought in, the suitable target house may have laptops, IPad’s and other items of value visible through window, along with an easily picked or broken lock. Results in the house becoming an attractive and suitable target for the motivated offender.

To summarise, routine activity theory is a theory of crime events, which differentiates it from the preponderant of criminological theories. With the knowledge that routine theory provides it helps guide research for crime trends over time, along with distribution of crime across space. Its use by others has lead to a much broader understanding of crime events and why they occur, resulting in increased knowledge of specific crimes, like residential burglary, which with routine activity theory, preventative methods can be implemented in order to help reduce crime rates in hot spot and high crime areas.

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