Routine Activity Theory (RAT)

There are many theories around that attempt to explain how and why crimes occur, but this one is a well-known theory which provides a straightforward explanation of why crimes occur. It can be used as a practical tool by crime reduction/prevention practitioners to analyse crime problems.

RAT argues that when a crime occurs, three things happen at the same time and in the same space:

  • a suitable target is available
  • there is the lack of a suitable guardian to prevent the crime from happening
  • a likely and motivated offender is present.

A Suitable Target

The first condition for crime is that a suitable target must be available. The word target has been chosen carefully, rather than other words such as victim.

There are three major categories of target. A target can either be:

  1. A person
  2. An object
  3. A place

No matter how suitable a target is, an offense won't occur unless a capable guardian is absent and a likely offender is present.

Absence of a Capable Guardian

The first condition for crime is that there must be a suitable target present. The second condition is that a capable guardian whose presence would discourage a crime from taking place must be absent.

A capable guardian is anything, either a person or thing, that discourages crime from taking place. These can be formal or informal.

Some examples of capable guardians:

  • Alarm Systems
  • Barriers
  • Close Circuit Television (Cctv) Systems
  • Door Staff
  • Fences
  • Friends
  • Lighting
  • Locks
  • Neighborhood Watch Groups
  • Neighbors
  • Police Patrols
  • Security Guards
  • Vigilant Staff and Co-Workers

Some of the guardians are formal and deliberate, like security guards; some are informal and inadvertent, such as neighbors.

It is also possible for a guardian to be present, but ineffective. For example a CCTV camera is not a capable guardian if it is set up or sited wrongly. Staff might be present in a shop, but may not have sufficient training or awareness to be an effective deterrent.

Likely Offenders

When a suitable target is unprotected by a capable guardian there is a chance that a crime will take place. The final element in this picture is that a likely offender has to be present.

RAT looks at crime from an offender's point of view. A crime will only be committed if a likely offender thinks that a target is suitable and a capable guardian is absent. It is their assessment of a situation that determines whether a crime will take place.

Likely offenders have many different reasons for committing offenses. It is important that you understand what some of these are. The ability to analyze a situation from an offender's point of view will increase your effectiveness as a crime reduction practitioner.

The list of possible reasons why people commit offenses is potentially endless! Here is list some of the main ones broken down under various categories. The list isn't exhaustive.


  • Greed
  • Poverty
  • to Feed a Drug Habit


  • As a Rebellion Against Authority
  • Because of Peer Pressure
  • Coercion
  • Envy
  • Family Background
  • Lack of Education
  • Living in a Culture Where Crime is Acceptable
  • Mental Illness
  • Poor Employment Prospects
  • Poor Housing


  • a belief that crime in general or particular crimes aren't wrong
  • as a protest on a matter of principle
  • prejudice against certain minority/ethnic groups

Many of the reasons why people commit crime are complex, and one or more are often linked. So, for example, although drug dependency may be the primary reason why someone commits an offense, there may be underlying reasons. Poverty or lack of employment might have caused the drug addiction in the first place and lead indirectly in to crime.


The presence of a likely offender is the last condition for crime and completes the basic crime triangle.

So, for a crime to occur a likely offender must find a suitable target in the absence of a capable guardian.