Theories for Situational and Environmental Crime Prevention Research Paper

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The situational and environmental perspective in criminology refers to a collection of theories and approaches that focus on the role that immediate circumstances play in producing criminal acts. This contrasts with criminology’s more usual preoccupation with what creates offenders’ criminality: depending on the disciplinary orientation, the disposition to commit crime is accounted for by genetic makeup, developmental experiences, or current social, cultural, and economic conditions. Correspondingly, the usual solution to any crime problem is deemed to require altering these long-term and systemic causes of criminality, for example, by investing in early intervention with at-risk families, increasing educational opportunities, removing social and economic disadvantage, or providing treatments for known offenders.

Situational and environmental perspectives, on the other hand, focus instead on the dynamics surrounding crime events. Attention shifts from distal causes of criminality to proximal factors that enable and encourage specific crimes. Individuals highly disposed to commit crime do not do so all of the time. Moreover, many of those lacking any particular criminal disposition will occasionally commit crimes and account for a high proportion of all crimes. Even those individuals determined to commit crime can only do so when there is opportunity, while some situations can induce ordinarily law-abiding individuals to commit crimes that would not otherwise have been committed. Whether crimes occur in any given location or at any given time depends upon the conduciveness of the conditions there. The prevention of crime, therefore, is conceptualized in terms of altering the criminogenic aspects of the immediate situations most liable to produce crime.

This research paper presents the key theories underpinning situational and environmental crime prevention. These are of two broad sorts. One set addresses the situational basis of criminal behavior. The other examines the patterning of crime in time and space according to the distribution of criminogenic environments.

Situational Models Of The Offender

While situational and environmental perspectives are concerned with crime events rather than with criminality, in order to understand the role played by the immediate environment in crime, we must begin with a coherent model of the offender that explains how his or her behavior is influenced by momentary contexts. That all behavior occurs as a function of a person-situation interaction has become a commonplace principle of much social science (Mischel 1968). Behavior can be highly variable from one situation to the next; how an individual acts is shaped by where he or she is and with whom he or she is interacting. The mechanics of the person-situation interaction have been explained by numerous theories. As for the application of the person-situation interaction to crime, two main approaches have been taken. The first approach is to view offenders as rational, utility-maximizing actors whose choices are informed by available criminal opportunities and how they perceive them; the second approach is to view the offender as a respondent to situational pressures and provocations, which sometimes positively encourage crime.

Rational Choice

In 1967 Ron Clarke published a research paper on absconding from a residential school for juvenile delinquents (Clarke 1967). He noted that the best predictors of absconding were aspects of the environment – hours of daylight, features of the school’s regime, and the distance home – and not any individual factors associated with the absconders. These and similar findings ultimately led Clarke to conclude that opportunity was a central and neglected cause of crime (Mayhew et al. 1976). In order to explain how opportunity leads to crime, Clarke and Cornish (1985) reviewed a wide range of research from sociology, criminology, economics, and cognitive psychology examining the variability of criminal behavior across situations. From the array of perspectives reviewed, they settled on a rational choice model as their preferred way to account for the mechanisms through which opportunity leads to deviant behavior.

The basic premise of the rational choice perspective on crime is that individuals make cost-benefit assessments of their situations in deciding whether or not it is in their interests to offend. Criminogenic environments are those that offer ample opportunities for prospective offenders: where they can expect the benefits from committing a crime to outweigh the costs of doing so. Situational crime prevention involves altering such criminogenic environments in ways that will lead prospective offenders to conclude that the expected costs of offending outweigh expected benefits. Note that while the label “rational choice theory” is frequently used in the literature, Cornish and Clarke have generally eschewed the term “theory,” preferring instead “model” or “perspective” (see Cornish and Clarke 2008). They present rational choice as a heuristic that provides a framework for practitioners seeking to implement situational crime prevention. For this purpose it’s a “good enough theory.”

Underpinning the rational choice perspective is a view of offenders, like all others, as goaldriven, rational agents (Cornish and Clarke 2008). People commit crime for the purpose of deriving some benefit. These benefits are not restricted to the obvious economic ones that accompany property crimes. Offenders can also commit crimes because doing so is exciting, because it gives them a sense of power, because their friends will approve, because they receive sexual gratification, and so on. The costs and benefits attached to crime vary from one crime to another and also vary within crime types. The reasons for committing rape are very different from the reasons for committing car theft. Likewise, the goals of a professional car thief are different from the goals of a joyrider. Furthermore, the goals pursued by offenders – money, sexual gratification, and excitement – are universal motivators, even if the means by which they pursue these goals are illegal. When viewed from the offender’s perspective, the decision to commit crime is rational and represents the most effective strategy for achieving his or her goals at that moment.

Critics have challenged the presumption of offender rationality that underpins the rational choice perspective, arguing that many of the choices made by offenders do not result in benefits and may be ultimately self-defeating (e.g., leading to imprisonment). A related criticism of the rational choice perspective is that it cannot explain so-called expressive crimes that appear to be spontaneous, associated with psychological disorder or committed when the offender is in a state of emotional arousal. Cornish and Clarke acknowledged that offender rationality is not perfect. Borrowing from the work of Simon (1957), they describe offender rationality as “bounded.” The concept of bounded rationality recognizes that there are limits on the offender’s capacity to make rational decisions. Rationality may be limited by cognitive biases, lack of information, time pressures, emotional arousal, drugs or alcohol, individual values, and a range of other factors. The utility of an anticipated outcome, therefore, is not necessarily consciously or accurately worked out when someone commits a given crime. Even crimes carried out in the heat of the moment, however, or which are the product of psychological disorder, are committed for a purpose. Offender decisions may be suboptimal, but they are “satisficing” – satisfactory and sufficient to meet the offender’s immediate needs (Cornish and Clarke 2008).

Although at first sight rational choice approaches may seem to imply that offenders systematically weigh up the options each time they are about to act, few rational choice proponents believe this to be the case. As people become practiced in a behavior, the thought processes surrounding that behavior become automatic and take place below the level of conscious awareness. A common example is driving. When people first learn to drive, they focus on every aspect of the task; with practice they can drive “without thinking” as if on autopilot. (Every driver will have had the experience of reaching their destination and realizing that they have little or no recollection of the journey just completed.) So too offenders learn with practice to commit crimes without going through a laborious decision-making exercise, but proceed on the basis of “standing decisions” (Clarke and Cornish 1985). Experienced burglars, for example, make much more rapid and efficient judgements about suitable burglary targets than do inexperienced burglars (Garcia-Retamero and Dhami 2009). They may even use terms such as “instinctive,” “automatic,” “routine.” and “second nature” when they describe how they go about committing their crimes (Nee and Meenaghan 2006).

As the above discussion of standing decisions suggests, many criminal events are not confined to single points in time but involve a sequence of stages and decisions and may extend over a prolonged period of time (Cornish and Clarke 1985, 2008). Throughout the crime commission process, the offender must make many choices as the offense unfolds. Cornish (1994) developed the concept of crime scripts to help elaborate the stages that comprise the criminal event. Crime scripts are “step-by-step accounts of the procedures used by offenders to commit particular crime” (Cornish 1994, p. 31). They are templates of the required elements of an offense and may include associated activities that occur both before and after the commission of the crime. By way of illustration, to commit a burglary a burglar will typically (1) research likely targets and assemble the necessary tools, (2) drive to the target suburb, (3) drive around the suburb, (4) scan houses for a likely target, (5) approach a likely target to check for occupancy, (6) break in and search for goods, (7) select and steal the goods, (8) load up the goods and departs, (9) avoid attracting attention, (10) leave the target suburb, and (11) store or sell the goods (Cornish and Clarke 2008). Breaking the criminal event down in this way helps identify “pinch points” for intervention. For example, prevention of burglary may include improving household security (step 4), introducing neighborhood watch (step 9), and clamping down on pawnshops that accept stolen goods (step 11).

Crime Precipitators

As Clarke and Cornish (1985) recognized when they first proposed the rational choice perspective, there are many different ways to account for the role situations play in behavior. Decision-making models such as rational choice assume that the prospective offender enters the crime scene already motivated to offend; the emphasis in these models is on the role played by the actual and perceived consequences of criminal behavior. Other explanations of the personsituation interaction, however, examine aspects of immediate environment that create or intensify the offender’s motivation to offend; the emphasis in these approaches is on the antecedents of behavior. More than just enabling crime to occur (i.e., through providing opportunities), some environmental conditions may actively precipitate criminal events. The various psychological mechanisms that have been proposed in the literature to account for the precipitating effects of situations on behavior can be collected into four categories – prompts, pressures, permissions, and provocations (Wortley 2001, 2008).

Prompts refer to environment features that bring to the surface thoughts, feelings, and desires that may be lying dormant. Prompts jog people’s memories, stimulate them, tempt them, evoke moods, and provide examples for people to follow. The primary theoretical underpinning for prompts is learning theory, which holds that for behavior to be produced on any given occasion, it needs to be evoked by an appropriate environmental stimulus. Hence, Pavlov’s dogs did not salivate randomly but only when a bell was rung. Alternatively, prompts may be explained by the concept of priming – the capacity of environmental stimuli to facilitate retrieval of information stored in memory – described in cognitive psychology. Applying the principle of prompting to crime, the immediate environment may trigger the impulse to engage in criminal acts. For example, it has been shown that increased levels of aggression follow exposure to a range of violence-related stimuli including guns, knives, Ku Klux Klan clothing, aggressive verbalizations, vengeance-themed bumper stickers, aggressive films, and boxing films (Carlson et al. 1990).

Pressures refer to the effects that the presence of others has on an individual’s behavior and are examined in social psychology. Human beings are social animals, and a great deal of social behavior is influenced by the demands and expectations of other members of the species. Social pressures include the tendency for individuals to conform to group expectations, to obey the instructions of authority figures, to submerge their identities in a crowd, and to try to please significant others. Under certain conditions, these social influences can allow good people to do bad things, a phenomenon that Zimbardo (2007) has been labelled the Lucifer Effect. Zimbardo, famous for the Stanford prison experiment (Haney et al. 1973), applied these social influences to explain the abuses of power that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003, where US soldiers guarding the prison punched, sexually abused, urinated on, threatened, and tortured detainees. Zimbardo argued that the behavior of the soldiers could not be understood in terms of individual pathology, but as a consequence of the social dynamics of the prison that promoted a mob mentality.

Permissions refer to the neutralizations that offenders invoke to excuse their crimes (Bandura 1977; Sykes and Matza 1957). Offenders may deny the essential wrongness of their actions (“It is nothing compared with the things politicians get away with”), minimize their personal accountability (“I lost control and couldn’t help myself”), deny causing any harm (“The shop was insured”), and minimize the worthiness of the victim (“She was just a whore”). Neutralizations can be facilitated by situational conditions that help obscure the relationship between the offender’s behavior and its negative outcome. For example, Bandura (1977) argued that the division of labor within organizations facilitates corruption by allowing individuals to hide behind a collective responsibility (“I was just doing my job”). One of the common defenses of Nazi prisoners at the Nuremberg trials was that while they might have played a role in the deportation of Jews to the concentration camps, they were not personally responsible for any deaths.

Provocations refer to aspects of the immediate environment that induce emotional arousal and so facilitate aggression. Aversive arousal-inducing experiences include being thwarted, constrained, frustrated, insulted, threatened, annoyed, overwhelmed, crowded, and discomforted. Physiological arousal prepares the individual for a flight-or-fight response as means of managing or adapting to noxious conditions and events. In a series of studies Homel and colleagues (Homel and Clark 1994; Homel et al. 1997; Macintyre and Homel 1997) examined the relationship between violence in licensed premises (bars and nightclubs) and aggravating features of those premises. Violence was associated with a range of environmental irritants including overcrowding, the amount of cigarette smoke, poor lighting, lack of ventilation, aggressive security staff, and poor floor plans that promoted jostling as patrons tried to buy drinks.

The notion of precipitation is not proposed as a rival to rational choice but as a complementary process. Both precipitation and rational choice may play a part of every crime, but the relative importance of each may vary from crime to crime and from individual to individual. To capture the respective contributions of precipitation and rational choice, Cornish and Clarke (2003) put forward an offender typology comprising three types – antisocial predators, mundane offenders, and provoked offenders.

Antisocial predators are stereotypical, calculating criminals. They actively seek out or create criminal opportunities and enter the crime scene with preexisting motivation to commit the crime. They utilize situational data to weigh up the relative costs and benefits of criminal action, and as such their behaviors may be largely accounted for by rational choice. Mundane offenders vacillate in their criminal commitment and are opportunistic in their offending. They have generalized impulse-control weaknesses, committing their crimes with minimal planning and forethought. Like predatory offenders, they seek to derive benefits from their crimes. However, they are easily tempted into crime and may use neutralizations to help them ease any lingering feelings of guilt they may be experiencing. Provoked offenders are reacting to a particular set of environmental circumstances – situational frustrations, irritations, social pressures, and the like – that induce them to commit crimes they would not have otherwise committed. They may have conventional value systems and lead otherwise law-abiding lives. Their involvement in crime may represent an aberration and would not have occurred if it were not for the precipitating events.

As with all typologies, the categories should not be viewed as hard and fast. The offender types may be more appropriately regarded as offending types, and an individual offender may commit crimes across all three types. In particular, antisocial predators are versatile and prolific offenders and are likely to also commit opportunistic and provoked crimes as the situation arises (Wortley 2012).

 Crime Patterns

It is a fundamental principle of the situational and environmental perspective that crimes do not occur randomly. Because crime is dependent upon criminogenic situations, it is patterned in time and space according to the distribution of those criminogenic situations. Nightclub violence, for example, will invariably be concentrated in a relatively small number of premises and will peak on certain days of the week (usually the weekend) and at certain times of the day (usually in the early morning as patrons leave) (Graham and Homel 2008). Crime hotspots are the logical places to direct policing and crime prevention resources. Thus, the set of theories that is examined in this section is concerned with explaining spatial and temporal crime patterns that follow the assumption that situations are crucial to the production of criminal acts. Two approaches are examined – routine activities and crime pattern theory.

Routine Activities Approach

At the heart of Cohen and Felson’s (1979) routine activity approach lies the most parsimonious account possible of the crime event. Direct contact predatory crime events require the coincidence in time and space of three minimal elements: “(1) motivated offenders, (2) suitable targets, and (3) the absence of capable guardians against a violation” (p. 589). For example, a residential burglary occurs when a motivated burglar encounters an unguarded premise that contains desirable products. If any one of the three elements is absent – a motivated offender does not pass by the house, the property is guarded, or it contains nothing of value – then burglary will not occur. The routine activities account makes no assumptions about the psychological history or attributes of the offender beyond the fact that he or she is motivated to commit crime. In fact, in later writings, Felson (e.g., 2008) substituted “likely offender” for “motivated offender.”

For such a deceptively simple idea, the routine activities approach has important implications for the distribution of crime. Cohen and Felson argued that the convergence of likely offenders, suitable targets, and unguarded locations is dictated by the natural rhythms of everyday life that produce predictable crime patterns. They set about demonstrating their thesis by examining crime rates after World War II. They noted an apparent paradox in the data – crime rates after the War rose substantially at the same time that economic conditions improved dramatically. This finding defies conventional criminological theory that predicts that crime increases with poverty. Cohen and Felson argued that higher crime rates could be explained by the changes in the routine activities of the population that accompanied economic prosperity. As economic conditions improved, the three necessary conditions for crime were often brought into alignment. Consider the case of burglary. Growing affluence and technological advances meant that there were more compact, valuable personal possessions available to steal in the average home (suitable targets). At the same time, as women increasingly took up work outside of the home, more houses were left unattended during the day (absence of capable guardians). These changes altered the behavior of likely offenders and resulted in significant shifts in burglary patterns. Between 1960 and 1975 rates of commercial burglary in the United States almost halved, while the rates for domestic burglary doubled as offenders chased the more lucrative pickings in suburban houses. Furthermore, burglary went from being a nighttime to a daytime activity, as offenders targeted the growing numbers of properties that became temporarily empty when women took paid employment outside the home.

There are many examples of crime patterns that can be explained by the respective routine activities of victims and offenders. Young males experience high rates of physical victimization because they have risky lifestyles that involve visiting bars in dangerous districts, staying out late at night, and mixing with other alcohol-affected youths (Jensen and Brownfield 1986). Juvenile violence peaks in the hour or so around the close of school in the afternoon when large numbers of young people – potential offenders and victims – spill into the streets (Snyder et al. 1996). Burglary is more likely to occur when the weather is fine and people are likely to go on excursions away from home (Hipp et al. 2004). As the previously discussed negative association between poverty and burglary demonstrates, an appealing feature of the routine activities approach is its capacity to explain apparently counterintuitive crime patterns. In a further example of this, Felson (2002) cites research showing that young people who have part-time jobs unexpectedly commit more crime than those who do not have jobs. As Felson explains, a job allows a young person to fund a relatively risky lifestyle (in terms of crime opportunities) that might include taking illegal drugs, drinking alcohol, visiting shopping malls, and driving his or her own car.

While Cohen and Felson were concerned with the impact of macro-level social forces on patterns of criminal behavior, subsequent theorizing has explored the compatibility of the routine activities approach with the rational choice perspective and situational crime prevention (Clarke and Felson 1993). It was realized that the three necessary elements for crime – an offender, a target, and an absent guardian – provided a framework for analyzing the dynamics of individual crime events and for determining points of intervention for crime prevention. The familiar crime triangle (“hot” offenders, “hot” locations, “hot” targets) used in operational policing has affinities with the routine activities approach (Clarke and Eck 2003). All prevention efforts involve neutralizing one or more of these three elements. Some crimes occur because of the presence of motivated offenders and so intervention involves strategies to divert them from likely trouble spots. Other crimes are the result of poor management of facilities and so require interventions that strengthen guardianship in those locations. And other crimes occur because of the easy accessibility of vulnerable targets and so intervention requires target-hardening strategies.

Crime Pattern Theory

Crime pattern theory was developed by Brantingham and Brantingham (1991, 2008) to account for nonuniformity and nonrandomness in the geographical distribution of criminal events. As with the routine activity approach, crime pattern theory assumes that crime is associated with the everyday movements of offenders and victims in time and space. However, while the routine activity approach emphasizes the supply, distribution, and movement of suitable targets, likely offenders, and capable guardians for explaining crime patterns across space and time, crime pattern theory is concerned specifically with the role played by the urban landscape. According to crime pattern theory, crime is associated with the distribution of key facilities and activities in a community that shape the offender’s daily movements and consequent familiarity with his or her environment.

Crime pattern theory explores the role in crime of three key urban elements – nodes, paths, and edges – that individuals encounter and become familiar with in their daily movements. Nodes are locations that an individual regularly visits in the course of his or her routine activities. They include places where a person lives, works or goes to school, shops, and goes to for entertainment and recreation. Paths are the usual routes the person takes to move between nodes. An edge is the boundary between areas of land use, which individuals encounter at the fringe of their nodes and as they traverse paths between their nodes. The most common edge is the dividing line that separates one neighborhood from another.

Together nodes, paths, and edges form an individual’s awareness space. Awareness spaces are the parts of the urban environment that the individual knows well and in which he or she feels comfortable. Most people, for example, have a set way that they travel from home to work or school, and they become very familiar with the environment along that path. They may, however, know little about the environment just one or two streets outside of their usual route and feel disoriented if they stay too far from their awareness space.

Crime pattern theory predicts that crime will occur in locations in which crime opportunities intersect with an offender’s awareness space. Crime opportunities cluster around certain nodes referred to as crime generators and crime attractors. Crime generators are locations that attract large numbers of people for legitimate, noncriminal activities. They include sports stadiums, shopping malls, and transport hubs. The presence of so many people provides many criminal opportunities (e.g., pickpocketing) for offenders who may happen to be mixed in with the general crowd of patrons. Crime attractors are districts or premises that attract potential offenders for the specific purpose of committing crime. They include certain bars, red light districts, and non-secured parking lots. Offenders frequent these areas to sell or obtain drugs, to fence stolen goods, to pimp for prostitutes, and so on. Crime attractors are particularly likely to be located near freeway exits and public transport hubs, which provide convenient access and escape. Crime generators and attractors are likely hotspots for crime. Edges, too, are often high-crime locations, where strangers come together and offenders can commit crime with little fear that they will be recognized. Edges can also be sites for conflict between those identifying with areas on either side and for graffiti to mark territorial claims (Brantingham and Brantingham 1995).

Crime pattern theory can be used to help explain specific movement patterns of offenders. One such pattern is the so-called journey to crime. A prediction that follows from crime pattern theory is that offenders generally will not travel far from their key personal nodes – their home, work, or school – in order to commit crime. They will prefer to access criminal opportunities that occur within their awareness space, but at a distance that reduces the chance that they will be recognized. This prediction may at first seem counterintuitive – it might be expected that offenders would travel away from their usual haunts in order to search out the most desirable targets and to put a safe distance between themselves and the crime. However, the prediction is also consistent both rational choice perspective and routine activities approach. Going out of one’s way to offend requires more effort than committing crimes in locations that are encountered in the course of one’s daily routine. Research examining the travel habits of offenders confirms that the frequency of offending decays as a function of the distance the offender is from home. Snook (2004) examined data from 41 serial burglars. He found that the median distance travelled to commit a burglary was 1.7 km and that 85 % of burglaries were committed within five kilometers from the burglar’s home. The rate of decay was rapid; 33 % of burglary sites were within one kilometer from home, 25 % between one and two kilometers, and 15 % between 2 and 3 km. Offending not only occurs close to home but also along familiar pathways. Rengert and Wasilchick (1985) examined the direction of burglary sites in relation to the burglar’s home. They found that over 75 % of burglary sites were within a 45º arc around the path between the burglar’s home and place of work, while 57% were in a 45º arc around the path between the burglar’s home and place of recreation.


A common criticism of the situational and environmental perspective in criminology is that it is atheoretical, naive, and ignores the “root causes” of crime. Prevention efforts based on the situational and environmental perspective are, in turn, often characterized as amounting to little more than a “locks and bolts” approach to reducing crime. The purpose of this research paper has been to provide an overview of the theories that underpin situational and environmental prevention. The intention has been to show that human behavior – and hence criminal behavior – is by its very nature situational. All crime involves a complex interplay between the disposition of the offender and the situation he or she is in at the time of the offense. The situational and environmental perspective does not ignore root causes of crime; the immediate environment is a root cause of crime.

The models of offender behavior and the accounts of crime patterns described in this research paper provide the bases for situational and environmental crime prevention. There are a number of different approaches taken to prevention, but all are based on the basic premise that altering some aspect of the immediate crime environment has the potential to disrupt crime. Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is one of the earliest formal models of situational/ environmental crime prevention. Its focus is on the role that architecture and urban design play in crime and crime reduction. Situational crime prevention (SCP) presents a micro-analytic approach to crime reduction. Its focus is on identifying and altering the specific elements of the crime scene that permit or encourage specific crimes to occur. Design against crime (DAC) examines the implications of the situational and environmental perspective for the design of products and systems. It explores the premise that some products encourage crime and that these criminogenic features may be designed out at the production stage. Crime science is the newest model in the situational and environmental perspective. Crime scientists argue that crime prevention initiatives need to be based around the scientific method. They also argue that the crime prevention task should be viewed in truly multidisciplinary terms and take in contributions of “hard” scientists – mathematicians, engineers, computer scientists, and so on – as well as social scientists.


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