Routine Activity Theory in Depth: Likely Offenders

Routine Activity Theory is relevant to practitioners of many stripes, such as police, investigators, and game wardens. Understanding the three ingredients of a specific wildlife crime provides useful information for anyone trying to disrupt a criminal process. Therefore, we’ll explore each of the three elements to understand how this might work. In this post, we tackle likely offenders.

The Likely Offender in Wildlife Conservation

We call the offender “likely” because everyone carries with them their own factors that make them more or less likely to commit a crime. This includes deep background factors for criminality such as family disadvantage, self-control, education, etc., as well as recent drivers of criminal behavior such as an immediate financial emergency or an argument with someone. The propensity for crime (criminality) resulting from these diverse factors of background and foreground varies widely between people. Some people are very unlikely to commit crime, while others are more likely, but everyone is capable. Dispositional theories address this suite of factors, trying to find what distinguishes a criminal from a non-criminal. Crime opportunity theory, on the other hand, focuses on criminal events.

The complex array of motivations among crime actors in wildlife conservation are far less explored than for “traditional” (i.e., urban) crimes, however, some ideas do have support.  Three such motivations are: family socialization, poverty, and political protest. For example:

  • Eliason (1999) summarized evidence from several studies which found that one of the commonalities among poachers in the U.S. was that their family members taught them to poach from an early age. Such an upbringing excuses or “neutralizes” the behavior.
  • Poaching for food or to supplement income for basic necessities explains why some poachers persist, despite the danger associated with the activity from park ranger shoot-first policies or even from the wildlife. In cases such as these, it is important for conservationists to understand poacher motivations and develop interventions that move beyond tough enforcement and sentencing to include social and economic programs that reduce the need to rely on poaching as an income source. Namibian community-managed conservancies offer an example of such an approach (Boudreaux, 2010). Natural resource management has been decentralized in some areas, and community ownership of local resources encourages legal, sustainable use, as well as economic development.
  • In communities that have been displaced from ancestral lands and isolated economically and politically, rhino poaching may serve an instrumental function via sale of the horn, as well as an expressive function in the form of a political statement on resource access (Hubschle 2016). This is an important motivation for conservationists to consider, because it provides much-needed clarification on local history and the political and social contexts in which they are operating.

Implications for Prevention

Routine activity theory is anchored in the rational choice perspective, meaning RA theory assumes that everyone has the potential to commit a criminal act and that people act rationally… sort of. Even if it’s not an optimal, perfectly rational solution, choices represent what an individual deems to be most likely to get them what they want (increase their pleasure) and reduce the risk of a bad outcome (avoid pain). These choices are often made in the moment, with limited information, so we call it “bounded rationality” (Cornish and Clarke, 2016; Simon 1955).

An important extension of this assumption is that when criminals act, they are responding to an opportunity that reduces risk and increases the likelihood of getting what they want, at least in their estimation. A related field of criminology - environmental criminology - studies how the environment or situation affects criminal decision making. Situational crime prevention (SCP) is the approach that arose out of environmental criminology, and it is one set of techniques for crime prevention that you’ll notice comes up often at Sustainably Enforced. It is hard to change an offender’s motivation, but easier to reduce their likelihood of committing crime by changing the opportunity to carry out the act. Stayed tuned for future Sustainably Enforced posts on SCP!

The strength of SCP is that it’s highly practical and prevention-oriented. You use SCP all the time - when you lock your car, you increase the effort that is required of a potential thief to get what they want, and you increase the risk because the thief might draw attention to themselves.

As a discipline, criminological scholarship tends toward understanding the background factors of motivation and criminality, but these elements are the most difficult to manipulate. Many proponents of routine activity theory acknowledge that social problems contribute to crime (though some reject this), but also recognize that a likely offender is only one of the necessary components of a criminal event, and the hardest to change, at that.

With that in mind, in our upcoming blog posts we will turn to the other elements of the crime triangle: targets and capable guardians.

Selected References

  • Boudreaux, K. C. (2010). Community conservation in Namibia:  Devolution as a tool (Working Paper No. 10–64) (p. 26). Mercatus Center. Open-Access Link.
  • Cornish, D.B., & R.V. Clarke (2017). The rational choice perspective In R. Wortley & M. Townsley, (Eds.) Environmental Criminology and crime analysis (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. Amazon Link.
  • Eliason, S. L. (1999). The illegal taking of wildlife: toward a theoretical understanding of poaching. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 4(2), 27–39. Closed-Access Link.
  • Hübschle, A (2016). A Game of horns: transnational flows of rhino horn. Cologne: International Max Planck Research School on the Social and Political Constitution of the Economy. Open-Access Link.
  • Simon, H. A. (1955). A behavioral model of rational choice. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 69(1), 99. Open-Access Link.

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