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The concept of situational crime started to gain recognition in the late 1940s when Edwin Sutherland (1947) argued that crime was either “historical” – influenced by previous personal history, or “situational” – the environmental factors encompassing the crime scene. Although acknowledged by the majority of criminologists, the concept of “situation” was not their primary focus and remained ignored up until the 1970s when it regained interest. Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, for instance, asserted that although criminality is a necessary condition, it alone is not sufficient for a crime to be committed: crime requires situational incentives found in the form of motivation and opportunity (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 1986). Among the most important contributors to the theory, however, is Ronald Clarke. In 1983, he thoroughly defined the core of the theory and focused entirely his new approach on the event of the crime – the immediate physical and social settings, as well as wider societal arrangements –, instead of the perpetrator. Clarke summarizes it as the science and art of decreasing the amount of opportunities for crime using “measures directed at highly specific forms of crime that involve the management, design, or manipulation of the immediate environment in as systematic and permanent way” (Clarke, 1983:225), an approach found to be much easier than to seek to reform the offenders themselves. The foundation of the situational crime concept relies on the assumptions that more opportunities lead to more crime, easier ones attract more offenders, and such existence of easy opportunities makes possible for a “life of crime.”

            The central concepts of the situational crime prevention theory are deeply rooted in and influenced by other theories, including the rational choice theory, the routine activity theory, and the crime pattern theory (Clarke and Felson, 1993; Felson, 1994). At the heart of every crime is a rational decision designed to weigh the risks and benefits for the offender, and in the absence of effective controls, offenders will focus on suitable targets. Routine activity theory relies on the occurrence of three key characteristics: a motivated offender, a suitable victim, and a lack of control. Prevention techniques are thus aimed at decreasing the number of suitable victims and increasing the presence of control and guardian at all times.          

            Crime prevention, or the intervention to prevent a crime from occurring, can be achieved in two ways: by changing the offender’s disposition or by reducing his or her opportunities. The focus of the situational crime prevention is correspondingly based on the belief that crime can be reduced effectively by altering situations rather than an offender’s personal dispositions. Back in 1983, Ronald Clarke primarily divided crime prevention approaches into three categories of measures: degree of surveillance, target hardening measures, and environmental management (Clarke, 1983:223). Preventive strategies were likely to exhibit two or more characteristics of several of these approaches. In 1992, he published a core list of twelve techniques aimed at reducing a variety of offenses. Yet, as he conducted more research with the help of Ross Homel, the list grew from twelve to sixteen techniques with the addition of the removing excuses category which applied the theory to a broader range of crime such as tax evasion and traffic offenses committed by common people as much as hardened offenders (Clarke & Homel, 1997). Answering to critiques (Wortley, 2001), Cornish and Clarke (2003) increased the techniques to twenty-five, by adding another category focusing on reducing provocations. It is likely that with time and new technologies becoming available to researchers, the list will keep on expanding. The latest classification of the twenty-five techniques of situational prevention aims to reduce opportunities and is categorized under five areas.   

– Increase the effort of crime

            Efforts taken to increase the effort are the most basic ones. They start with target-hardening, which is accomplished using physical barriers such as locks, anti-robbery screens, and tamper-proof packaging. A more controlled access to facilities in which people can sometimes too easily enter when they should not, through electronic access regulations, baggage and body screenings, and use of entry phones would increase the effort. Regulating the entrance is helpful, but screening exits should also be monitored, to decrease shoplifting for instance – it can be done with the use of electronic merchandise tags. Finally, two other means of increasing the effort advertised by Clarke are the deflection of offenders (by closing streets, segregating rival groups of sports fans, and providing alternative venues for traffic) and the control of weapons/tools, in an effort to make it difficult for offenders to use them. One such example of this technique was used in Britain, where bar owners now use “toughened” beer glasses to prevent drunk fighting with broken glass.

– Increase the risks of crime

            Offenders are generally more concerned about the risks of getting caught rather than about the consequences, because once the person is apprehended, consequences are inevitable and the person can thus not prevent them; the focus is thus put on preventing getting caught. It leads them to be more careful, yet an increase of guardianship such as a Neighborhood Watch and routine precautions such as going out in a group at night, carrying a cell-phone, etc. are going to increase additionally the risks of them being caught. Natural surveillance, through improved lighting and defensible space designs, also matters, along with reducing anonymity to create awareness. Using pwedfrgregtrhthtrhtrhlace managers (employees, attendants, doormen) and rewarding them when they detect fraud helps to establish a more controlled presence in the surroundings as well as more security: having two clerks on duty at night, for instance, is more threatening for the offender than if only one was present. Finally, strengthening formal surveillance will deter offenders, who are likely to be afraid of policemen, security guards, alarms, cameras and inspectors.  

– Reduce the rewards

            An important part of the situational crime prevention focuses on decreasing the benefits crime offers. Offenders are constantly seeking benefits from their acts, whether material for thieves, sexual for sexual offenders, intoxication, excitement, revenge or peers’ approval. Five strategies are employed to reduce such rewards. The first one, concealing targets involves hiding the potential gains, by hiding jewelry and closing curtains at home to prevent people to get a peek of the inside, as well as parking one’s expensive car in the garage rather than leaving it in the streets. Although concealing targets is helpful, some go to the extent of removing them to prevent robberies of bus drivers for instance, exact fare regulations and safes were introduced in the buses. Registering property identification, done through vehicle licensing and property marking for instance, also reduce thieves’ incentives. Another technique used is the disruption of markets of stolen/illegal goods. Monitoring streets vendors and pawn shops is done in the view of reducing the influence of the benefits gained through the sales of illegally obtained products. Finally, a last technique is the simple denial of benefits. Road humps deny the benefits of speeding. Ink tags, used in resale, follow a similar objective: if tampered with, they release irremovable ink on the clothing, denying to the shoplifters the opportunity of wearing or selling the stolen article.

– Reduce provocations

            This category looks at the emotional side of crime - by reducing provocations, people will be less likely to engage in crime. Five techniques are highlighted:  reducing the frustration and stress in everyday life through more efficient queues and polite services, or the presence of additional seating in place with large numbers of passers-by and/or clients; avoiding disputes by the segregation of rival fans within stadiums or by reducing crowding in pubs; reducing the emotional arousal through controlling violent pornography’s availability and enforcing fair behavior on sports fields through the use of referees; neutralizing peer pressure, put in effect by separating troublemakers in school and the use of slogans such as “Idiots drink and drive” or “It’s OK to say No”; and finally, discouraging imitation through the rapid repair of vandalism to prevent further degradation, a technique influenced by the broken-windows theory developed by sociologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling (1982).

– Remove excuses

            The fifth category focuses on the fact that most offenders try to rationalize their acts by neutralizing the outcomes and thus seeks to remove such ability to make excuses. It can be achieved through the following five techniques. Setting rules, between employers and employees or students and teachers, or regarding rental agreements for instance lowers one’s ability to decide on his/her own what is acceptable. Posting instructions in public places such as “No Parking” or “Private Property” prevent offenders to say they didn’t know; alerting conscience is also used to make the community more aware, as well as to notice people when they are about to commit a crime such as speeding for instance, through the use of roadside speed display boards. Assisting with compliance and the control of drugs and alcohol are the two other techniques aimed at removing excuses. Drugs and alcohol ought to be monitored as they impair one’s judgment of lawful conduct.

            The twenty-five techniques of situational prevention classified by Ronald Clarke and aiming to reduce opportunities have limitations. As new technologies arise and time changes, new and more efficient techniques will be developed, and will most likely replace some of the ones mentioned previously. Furthermore, not all techniques are tailored to be effective with respect to every category of crime. Some are more or less fitted to prevent specific crime, as for instance reducing provocations will work best for closed environments but may not necessarily affect thieves. Removal of excuses is aimed at lesser offenders, who engage in petty crimes in daily life, but will not affect hardened offenders. The techniques also overlap each other, as for instance increasing effort may lead to an increase in risks. 

            Society as a whole needs to take measures toward reducing opportunities for crime. According to the situational crime prevention theory, society plays a role in inadvertently creating crime, through the manufacturing of “criminogenic goods” (cars with no alarm systems, unprotected software, poor security devices, etc.), through leaky systems, and poor management/design of facilities (such as unsecured parking lots, overcrowded pubs and clubs, etc.). Society thus needs to come up with new ideas, with lesser economic and social costs. Another similar set of precautions against crime comes from the traditional “crime prevention through environmental design” (CPTED) which involves constructing and locating buildings in ways that “harden” crime targets, providing more “defensible space” and making it less attractive to offenders (Newman, 1972; Jeffery, 1977). The belief is that offenders will not rationally choose to engage in delinquency where streets are safer and maintained in good conditions as well as controlled and tailored to protect targets (target-hardening).  

Empirical Validity []

         Empirical validity, or the extent to which a theory is supported or refuted by scientifically gathered data, is at the core of any consistent theory. The situational crime prevention relies on a broad compilation of literature to support the different techniques of situational prevention, which includes:

  • ·   Poyner and Webb (1987) concluded that an increased use of access controls in a British housing estate (entry phones, fences, and electronic access to buildings) led to a significant reduction in vandalism and theft. Category: increasing the effort through control access to facilities.
  • ·   Clarke (1983) found that arrival and departure of British soccer fans has been monitored to circumvent long periods of waiting around that stimulate trouble, and rival fans have been physically separated within the stadium to reduce the probability of fights. Category: reducing provocations through avoiding disputes and reducing frustration and stress.
  • ·   Hunter and Jeffery (1992) report that the majority of the reviewed studies found that having two clerks on duty, especially during night shifts, was an effective prevention measure against robberies. Category: increasing the risks through using place managers and increasing surveillance.

After reviewing and evaluating some of the main findings from the literature on the situational dimensions of criminal and deviant behavior, researchers Christopher Birkbeck and Gary Lafree concluded that frustration, threat, and reward were recurrently found as situational correlates of crime, as well as the fact that “situations are given meaning only through the subjective experiences of actors. Actors select, weigh, check, suspend, and transform the meanings of the situations they encounter” (Birkbeck & LaFree, 1993:119). Techniques of environmental management whose main objectives are independent of crime control can also act as crime prevention. In Great Britain, a law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets was meant to decrease the number of deadly accidents, yet it also helped reduce motorcycle theft, since the thieves were unlikely to carry a spare helmet and were likely to get arrested if not wearing one. (Mayhew et al., 1976). Clarke summed up the body of work used to support his arguments by concluding that criminal conduct was found to be more prone to be influenced by changes in opportunity and temporary (external) pressures (1995); furthermore, from a series of interviews with residential burglars (Scarr, 1973; Reppetto, 1974; Brantingham & Brantingham, 1975; Waller & Okihiro, 1978) he asserted that the avoidance of risk and effort plays a “large part in target selection decisions” (Clarke, 1995:95).

          One of the situational crime prevention theory’s strength lies in its scope. The core principles are deliberately general and the prevention techniques can be applied to the different categories of crime. Whether crimes are emotionally driven, opportunistic, sexual, or planned out, they are affected by situational aspects. Rates of homicide, for instance, are influenced by the easiness of accessibility of weapons – handguns availability leads to higher rates (Clarke, 1997:5).

           The situational crime prevention has been scrutinized and criticized over the years. Displacement has been evoked repeatedly, as it has been argued that “situational variables might determine the timing and location of offending, but reducing opportunities at a particular time and place would result simply in displacement of offending to other times, places, or crimes, with no net reduction in crime” (Clarke & Felson, 1993:4). Displacement can be achieved through different ways in response to the prevention techniques, an offender might attempt to: commit it elsewhere (geographic displacement) or at a different time (temporal displacement), alter his modus operandi (tactical displacement), pick a different target or victim (target displacement), or engage in a different category of crime (activity-related displacement) (Reppetto, 1976; Gabor, 1978). The results of further studies were mixed, as some concluded that the displacement of crime was real and thus situational prevention techniques were a waste of time and money:

·         Reducing the risk of theft for new vehicles using a specific type of locks in Britain was found to lead to a greater risk for older vehicles, which were without such locks (Mayhew et al, 1976).

·         Allatt (1984) found that a consequent decrease in burglary on a British property after the use of target hardening techniques was followed by a surge of property crimes in the neighborhoods.

·         A study of curfews in Detroit concluded that the technique led to temporal displacement of crime: in the afternoon, the rates almost doubled, from 13 to 22% of all reported crime. (Hesseling, 1994:206).

          Rene B.P. Hesseling (1994) reviewed the empirical literature available on displacement, and noticed that in most cases, offenders did not engage frequently in activity-related displacement, but rather changed their habits, as for instance prostitutes change streets or clients when their business is threatened somewhere. Not all studies concluded in displacement of crime however; for example, the introduction of caller-ID in New Jersey did not lead to an increase of obscene calls in the surroundings (Clarke, 1997:29). Hesseling’s main conclusion highlighted that displacement is a possible consequence of crime prevention, yet that it can be avoided. Furthermore, “if displacement does occur, it will be limited in size and scope” (Hesseling, 1994:219). Weisburd (1997) concluded that tactics such as access control, employee surveillance, street lighting, and property identification may decrease crime rates without leading to displacement, but warned that “the enthusiasm surrounding situational prevention must be tempered by the weakness of the methods used in most existing evaluation studies” (Weisdburd, 1997:11).

             Another criticism of the situational crime prevention theory concerns its costs. Strengthening deterrence by increasing the weight of punishments would be easier than manipulating the opportunity structure (with costs and inconveniences). The issue with this critique is that offenders have reported higher fear of getting caught rather than the details (length, location, strength, etc.) of the punishment they'd potentially receive if caught (Clarke, 1995:106). Increasing the risks of being caught is thus a key category of the situational crime prevention theory. Yet some of the techniques classified previously do come at a certain price, sometimes too expensive and thus unavailable to the average citizen. In a study of burglary, Neal Shover (1991) gathered data from imprisoned property offenders on the effectiveness of different security measures against burglary. The highest ranked on the list included burglar alarms connected to law enforcement agencies, electronic window sensors, closed circuit television, and security patrols - such measure come at great costs for an individual (Shover, 1991:99). Citizens who have the means and who pay for their own protection might be less inclined to see increased public expenditure on such situational prevention techniques, leading to political issues (Clarke, 1983). Facing fears of "Big Brother" forms of state control in which the government would control video surveillance and public accesses, Clarke emphasizes that the presence of such situational measures did not always need to be obstrusive or decrease one's freedom (Clarke, 1983:250).

Policy Implications[]

       Marcus Felson (1998; 2002; Felson & Clarke, 1995) explored the policy implications of routine activities theory as based upon safety measures already used against crime in people's everyday life, such as locking doors and cars, avoiding dangerous places, or installing alarms. Any of the techniques classified earlier need to be wisely tailored to the situations in which they are put into effect, looking at the type of offenders it seeks to deter. Clarke noted the relevance of offenders testing the limits of the prevention techniques and sometimes being able to find weaknesses (Clarke, 1997:27).

         Situational crime prevention represents a new strategy in which the core concept deals with working with crime through an understanding of the surrounding details rather than focusing on the crime itself or the perpetrator, which is attractive for policy makers as it can lead to tangible results easily studied (Gordon, 1998). Situational prevention is gaining recognition, and is already playing a part in Great Britain’s and the Netherlands’ government crime policy (Clarke, 1997). Examples of policy implications include the 1975 Scottish Council on Crime which proposed that plastic mugs should be used in pubs to prevent their use as weapons (Clarke, 1997); DiLonardo (1996) demonstrates that electronic merchandise tags on clothing leads to significant declines in shoplifting (35-75%) in American stores; Bell and Burke (1989) concluded that the renting of a parking lot staffed with security and public bathrooms in downtown Arlington, Texas, on Fridays and Saturdays relieved severe congestion in the neighborhoods and associated crime problems (including litter, under-age drinking, vandalism, etc). Grateful of the results, the contract was renewed after the trial period by the city council. As shown, situational preventive measures have “demonstrated their effectiveness in some contexts and warrant further development and experimentation” (Clarke, 1983, p227).

Wikia page written by Amandine Preaux


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