Opportunity Theories Of Crime

While preventative attempts have traditionally directed an influence at the individual level, situational approaches aim to reduce the opportunities for criminality by altering the relationship between the victim, the offender and the environment (Nietzel and Heimlein, 1986).

This group of theories address the ways in which the opportunity to commit crime contributes to criminality. They became popular in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of an increase in the crime rate, particularly in the USA, which was attributed to changes in the routine activities of the population (Cohen and Felson, 1979). These changes were argued to be creating more opportunities for crime to occur.

From a practical perspective, opportunity theories provide a framework to assist crime prevention practitioners in developing workable solutions to prevent specific crime problems. Understanding the influence that opportunity plays in criminal behaviour has important implications for the routine crime prevention work undertaken by police and other agencies and for crime policy and practice.

The fundamental principle underlying opportunity theories is that behaviour is a product of an interaction between the individual and context/setting, emphasising the importance of situational 'cues' which act as a catalyst to translate criminal inclinations into action. Research from the field of environmental criminology such as Newman's (1972) concept of 'defensible space' and 'crime prevention through environmental design' (CPTED) (Jeffery, 1971) focuses on the criminal opportunities provided by the environment. Newman, Jeffery and their followers generated important knowledge regarding the application of the principles of designing out crime in the environment. This broadened the responsibility for crime prevention to include housing planners, architects and manufacturers, so that better designs were implemented for the way people use space. The existence of both environmental opportunities and personal opportunities are thus argued to create more favourable conditions for crime to occur.

To test the theory that opportunities can cause crime, the famous 'Character Education Enquiry' in America in the 1920s included an experiment where children were given the opportunity to cheat on tests, to lie about cheating and to steal coins from puzzles used. The study found that most of the children behaved dishonestly at least some of the time (Hartshorne and May, 1928). In adults, a more recent experiment conducted by Farrington and Knight (1980) showed that letters which were 'found' by participants were less likely to be posted if they contained money. Interestingly, the participants were also less likely to post letters addressed to females rather than males. This was interpreted as providing evidence for the process of making a considered decision as to whether to respond to temptation.

The importance of opportunity in predicting criminality is also highlighted by several examples of policy implementation that reduced crime by removing opportunities. The best known of these was the introduction of mandatory steering locks for all cars in Germany in the 1960s. This had the immediate effect of reducing car thefts. In the UK, however, the requirement for steering locks was made only for new cars. It resulted in a reduction in theft of new cars, but older cars were more frequently stolen (Mayhew, Clarke and Hough, 1980). Similarly, in Sweden the introduction in 1971 of photographic proof of identity when paying with cheques, and later by credit card, brought a dramatic reduction in the theft of these items. (cited in Knutsson, 1998).

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