Routine Activities Theory (RAT) | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminology

Routine Activities Theory (RAT) proposes that crime occurs when three elements converge: motivated offenders, suitable targets, and the absence of capable guardians.

Routine Activities Theory (RAT) is a criminological theory that seeks to explain the occurrence of crime in society. According to RAT, crime occurs when three elements come together: motivated offenders, suitable targets, and the absence of capable guardians.

Motivated offenders are individuals who have the desire and inclination to commit crime. These offenders may be driven by a variety of factors, including financial gain, thrill-seeking, or a desire for revenge. Suitable targets, on the other hand, are objects, places, or people that are vulnerable to criminal activity. For example, a poorly secured home or a person walking alone at night may be seen as suitable targets by motivated offenders.

The final element in RAT is the absence of capable guardians. This refers to the lack of individuals or systems that can prevent or deter criminal activity. Capable guardians may include police officers, security personnel, or even the presence of bystanders who may intervene to prevent a crime from occurring.

When these three elements come together, the likelihood of crime increases. For example, if a motivated offender sees a suitable target with no capable guardians present, they may be more likely to attempt a criminal act. On the other hand, if a suitable target is well-protected by capable guardians, the likelihood of a crime occurring decreases.

RAT was developed in the late 1970s by Lawrence E. Cohen and Marcus Felson. The theory was influenced by previous criminological theories, including the Social Disorganization Theory and the Strain Theory. RAT has since become one of the most influential criminological theories and has been used to explain a wide range of criminal activities, including theft, burglary, and even terrorism.

RAT has been used to inform a range of crime prevention strategies, including the design of public spaces and the implementation of surveillance systems. For example, the presence of security cameras in public spaces can serve as a capable guardian, deterring potential offenders from committing criminal acts. Similarly, the use of lighting and other environmental design features can reduce the suitability of certain locations as targets for criminal activity.

However, RAT has also been criticized for its focus on individual-level factors, such as offender motivation, and its neglect of structural factors, such as poverty and inequality. Critics argue that RAT does not take into account the broader social and economic factors that contribute to crime and that it may even reinforce victim-blaming attitudes.

Despite these criticisms, RAT remains an important and influential criminological theory. By highlighting the importance of the convergence of motivated offenders, suitable targets, and the absence of capable guardians, RAT provides valuable insights into the dynamics of criminal activity and informs a range of crime prevention strategies and policies.

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Last Modified: 03/14/2023


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