Why Crimes Occur in Hot Spots

Several theories help explain why crime occurs in some places and not others. The theories below are an outgrowth of environmental criminology in the 1980s, spearheaded by Paul and Patricia Brantingham. Their work fused the principles of geography with criminology and helped develop new criminological theories.

Routine Activity Theory suggests that crime occurs when a motivated offender, a suitable target and the lack of capable guardian converge in the same place at the same time [1]. Criminals choose or find their targets within context of their routine activities, such as traveling to and from work, or other activities such as shopping, and tend not to go too far out of their way to commit crimes.

Situational Crime Prevention Theory suggests that crime and public disorder can be prevented by reducing opportunities for crime. For example, if crime occurs regularly in a dimly lit alley, public works could improve lighting and increase police presence in the area.

Broken Windows Theory explains how lesser crimes, untended areas, blight, graffiti and signs of disorder decrease neighborhood residents' willingness to enforce social order, which in turn leads to more serious crime. If police target minor transgressions, they may prevent serious crime from developing in those places.

Crime Opportunity Theory suggests that when offenders want to commit a crime, they look for an opportunity or a practical target. For example, if a city neighborhood offers no off-street parking, it may be a prime target for vehicle thefts.

Social Disorganization Theory suggests that crime occurs when community relationships and local institutions fail or are absent. For example, a neighborhood with high residential turnover might have more crime than a neighborhood with a stable residential community.

Crime Pattern Theory integrates crime within a geographic context that demonstrates how the environments people live in and pass through influence criminality. The theory specifically focuses on places and the lack of social control or other measures of guardianship that are informally needed to control crime. For example, a suburban neighborhood can become a hot spot for burglaries because some homes have inadequate protection and nobody home to guard the property.

Notes

[1] Cohen, Lawrence E., and Marcus Felson, "Social Change and Crime Rate Trends: A Routine Activity Approach," American Sociological Review 44 (August 1979):588-605.

Date Created: October 14, 2009