How burglars target properties

With the recent news that the largest increase in crimes in the UK in over a decade we sat down with criminology professor at Brighton University Peter Squires to discuss theories into what drives crime.

“You’ll find a lot of academics referring a triangular theory of crime which involves three key components [a motivated offender, a target, and a absence of effective guardianship] in order for a crime to take place. This is known as Routine Activity Theory”.

Routine Activity Theory offers us a macro-level view of offender behaviour. It focuses on specific crime events is based on the assumption that crime can be committed by anyone who is presented with the right opportunity.

Are burglars simply opportunists?

Motivation for someone looking to commit a crime such as burglary consists of an opportunity, target and the absence of a guardian. Take away any one of these and the crime cannot occur. The subject of guardianship can be more subjective such as a physical person or something more abstract such as a home security system or heavily bolted windows. How secure or threatening the physical or perceived level of guardianship may depend on the criminal’s own motivation.

Ian Hearnden on behalf of The Home Office found the main reasons for burglary were as follows;

  • Influence of friends, the need to fund drug use and boredom.
  • The likely ‘yield’ was a burglar’s key consideration when deciding which house to target.
  • Offenders were most likely to take cash, jewellery, laptops and credit cards.
  • Over two-thirds of the sample said they had returned to a property they had burgled before and taken items from it on a second occasion.
  • Over half of the sample knew who lived in the property.
  • Interviewees did not believe burglary to be risky, especially once they had disposed of the goods taken.
  • Offenders were more likely to base decisions about the attractiveness of a property on beliefs that the occupants had goods worth stealing than on structural aspects of the building. However, a similar study found the addition of a burglar alarm to window locks and door double or deadlocks offers 36 per cent higher protection against burglary with entry

The findings from the above study from a sample of 82 burglars suggests that by knowing the victim and returning to the same property means operating less on opportunity level and more premeditation which includes the offender’s familiarity with the ‘target’ surroundings.

Routine Activity Theory has been criticised by reducing crime to environmental factors rather than looking at individual differences or socialisation. A deterrence that influences the routine activities that produce crime is aligned to the moral compass of the offender. For example, if a person has been socialized to hold conventional beliefs, even in the presence of criminal opportunities, individuals would refrain from crime. Generally speaking, fear of the consequences of getting caught is a far more significant ‘deterrent’ to offending than any punishments or criminal sentences, and this manifests itself in terms of shame or embarrassment, or letting friends and loved ones down, which is where ‘social bonds’ come in.

Such is the strength of social bonds that serve as a buffer to counteract the lure of criminal activities contrary to the Home Office report that refers to influence of friends as an enabler of crime. Of course, any theory that reduces complex human behaviour to a few variables is always open to scepticism.

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