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Title: Deciding on crime? : rational vs. non-rational elements in offender decision making
Author: Steele, Rachael Helen
ISNI:       0000 0004 2736 7603
Awarding Body: University of Liverpool
Current Institution: University of Liverpool
Date of Award: 2011
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This study examines the applicability of Rational Choice Theories of offending to offenders' actual offending experiences. The Rational Choice theoretical perspective is premised on the idea of the offender as a reasoning, decision-making individual who weighs up potential costs and benefits of a crime to achieve maximum utility. This approach to crime has been influential as part of the dominant ethos of the contemporary Criminal Justice system in England and Wales, and indeed the justice systems of most Western societies. This study relates the Rational Choice Theories of crime to individual offender experiences to investigate if such a process as a decision making calculus can be said to exist within the experience of offending individuals and if so, to explore any factors identified as affecting these decisions. Previous literature in the application of Rational Choice Theory to crime is reviewed, in particular the previous research that entailed interviews or direct observation of individuals concerning what happens when he or she is about to commit a crime. However the number of relevant studies undertaken with a sample of actual offenders rather than a student or other non offending population is small. Previous studies of this kind have tended to focus on a particular offence type, utilising for example all burglar or all shoplifter samples, and therefore results and conclusions reached by these studies can be difficult to generalise to other offence types, though there is some overlap in findings. Within the present study, in depth interviews were conduced with 46 offenders with a range of offending experiences. In this way, the study aimed to assess the applicability of the Rational Choice Theories to a range of offending decisions, bringing together different offences from shoplifting to violent assault. Women were deliberately oversampled relative to the percentage of women in the offending population in order to ensure a balanced viewpoint on decision making. In using a diverse sample group it was proposed that the concepts and ideas emerging from the diverse group could contribute to further development of the Rational Choice approach to crime. To support this theoretical development interview narrative was analysed using techniques adapted from Grounded Theory in order to identify the themes and concepts introduced by the offending individuals in relation to their experiences. In addition to the interviews, focus groups were conducted with a separate cohort of offenders and a cohort of experienced members of Probation Service staff in order to examine the prevalence of the themes emerging from the interviews. Offender narrative was also checked against an independent overview of the offending incident in question to establish the level of accuracy in terms of the observable facts of the offence. The results of this research suggest that there is some evidence that some offenders engage in a decision making processes prior to an offence, though evidence of rationality can be seen to vary both within and between individuals and within and between offence types. Where a decision making calculus was observed, several themes emerged from the narrative, including the bias towards focusing thought on potential positive outcomes, the relative lesser weighting of potential negative outcomes in the thought process, and the relative importance of informal sanctions over formal sanctions. The impact of alcohol and drugs was another emerging theme, with offenders describing their substance use as both an inhibiter, and enabler to their thinking processes. Further, an overarching theme to emerge was the evidence for two goal-regulation type processes identified by the offenders as the main motivator of their behaviour. The first of these is the desire to achieve a want or need through the commission of an offence, which tended to be associated with acquisitive category offences (shoplifting, burglary etc) and the second being to avoid or gain relief from an unpleasant affective state or situation, which tended to be associated with affective or expressive offences. However, despite these process -offence type associations there were once again variances observed within individuals and within offence types. That is, an individual could be seen as offending based on both goal types at different times, and even offence types that appear similar can be a result of different goal seeking processes. Suggestions are made as to how the findings and conclusions of this study fit with, and allow development of existing Rational Choice approaches to crime, and advocate the use of the developed Rational Choice Approach as a tool for the study of individual thinking in the period surrounding an offence. A 'Decision Structure' model based on this developed Rational Choice approach is described, with emphasis on the personal, social and motivational factors present at the time of the offence, providing a framework for exploring the offending decision. Implications of this 'Decision Structure' model on the study of offending and on working with offenders are suggested, and ideas for further studies are presented.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available