In the United States, infamous crimes against innocent victims—especially children—have repeatedly been regarded as justice system “failures” and resulted in reactionary legislation enacted without regard to prospective negative consequences. This pattern in part results when ‘memorial crime control’ advocates implicitly but inappropriately apply the tenets of routine activities theory, wherein crime prevention is presumed to be achievable by hardening likely targets, increasing the costs associated with crime commission, and removing criminal opportunity. In response, the authors argue that academic and public policy discourse will benefit from the inclusion of a new criminological perspective called random activities theory, in which tragic crimes are framed as rare but statistically inevitable ‘Black Swans’ instead of justice system failures. Potential objections and implications for public policy are discussed at length.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
This has often been instigated by Fox Network News personality Bill O’Reilly. On his news talk show, The O’Reilly Factor, the famous journalist and commentator has criticized state governments that have hesitated in adopting Jessica’s Law and lambasted specific judges for apparently lenient sentences for sex offenders, and often with great effect. It is likely that the passage of Jessica’s Law in Ohio in particular was to some extent a result of O’Reilly’s influence (Griffin and Wooldredge in press).
However, in employing this figurative language, it is extremely important to distinguish Random activities theory, which we propose as an additional framework criminologists could use in the public discourse about crime policy, from the recent and intriguing arguments for the application of chaos theory or complex systems science (CSS) in explaining crime and justice system phenomena. While the former is simply a statement about the future of crime (“bad things will happen—whatever the reason”), criminologists’ employment of CSS represents sophisticated efforts to use the various aspects of chaos theory (such as the systemic interdependence among system components, patterned outcomes or “fractals”, or the importance of initial conditions) to explain the complex, nonlinear, and often multidirectional relationship between crime and social factors or variations in system behavior (Walker 2007; Arrigo and Barret 2008; Milovanovic 1997; Walters 1999). As an effort to inform more populist discussions, random activities theory is of necessity a plainer animal.
Besides being applicable to problems such as heinous crimes against children or serial killers, Random activities theory is applicable to the crime of terrorism in essentially the same way as Taleb employed ‘Black Swan logic’ in explaining the 9-11 terror attacks. The current “war on terror” with its implied notions of an epic struggle of good versus evil and “us” versus “them” that will result in a terminal defeat of the “enemy” is unrealistic. In invoking military imagery and encouraging often counterproductive military incursions, the “war on terror” metaphor is highly analogous to the failed draconian efforts by policymakers to eradicate, for example, the intractable crime of child abduction and murder. The war mentality implies that only complete eradication is acceptable. Consider the commonly forwarded mantra that, “We have to be right every time; the terrorists only have to be right once.” This statement is exactly as sensible as saying, “The police have to be right all the time; the car thieves only have to be right once.” The mindset enables terrorists to consider one fortuitously successful strike as a strategic victory. Rather than being seen as acts of “war”, terrorist attacks should be seen as another category of unusual crime. They occur when routine intelligence and surveillance defenses are foiled and a terrorist is able to commit his intended act. In other words, a successful terrorist attack is an example of random activities at work.
We would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting we address this issue.
Akers, R. L. (1998). Social learning and social structure: A general theory of crime and deviance. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.
Arrigo, B. A., & Barret, L. (2008). Philosophical criminology and complex systems science: Towards a critical theory of justice. Critical Criminology, 16, 165–184.
Barak, G. (1988). Newsmaking criminology: Reflections on the media, intellectuals, and crime. Justice Quarterly, 5(4), 565–587.
Barak, G. (2007). Doing newsmaking criminology from within the academy. Theoretical Criminology, 11(2), 191–207.
Best, J. (1991). “Road Warriors” on “Hair Trigger Highways”: Cultural resources and the media’s construction of the 1987 freeway shootings problem. Sociological Inquiry, 61, 327–345.
Buffalo News (1994). Communities need to know about sex predators nearby; there should be warning about worst ex-cons. Buffalo News, August 17, p. 2.
Caywood, T. (1998). Routine activities and urban homicides. Homicide Studies, 2(1), 64–82.
Chancer, L., & McLaughlin, E. (2007). Public criminologies: Diverse perspectives on academia and policy. Theoretical Criminology, 11(2), 155–173.
Clarke, R. V. (1983). Situational crime prevention: Its theoretical basis and practical scope. In M. Tonry & N. Norris (Eds.), Crime and justice: An annual review of research (Vol. 4, pp. 225–256). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Clarke, R. V. (Ed.). (1997). Situational crime prevention: Successful case studies (2nd ed.). New York: Harrow and Heston.
Cohen, L. E., & Felson, M. (1979). Social change and crime rate trends: A routine activity approach. American Sociological Review, 44(4), 588–608.
Cullen, F. T., Wright, J. P., & Chamlin, M. B. (1999). Social support and social reform: A progressive crime control agenda. Crime and Delinquency, 45, 188–207.
Currie, E. (1998). Crime and punishment in America: Why the solutions to America’s most stubborn social crisis have not worked—and what will. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Currie, E. (2007). Against marginality: Arguments for a public criminology. Theoretical Criminology, 11(11), 175–190.
Dziech, B. W., & Schudson, C. B. (1989). On trial: America’s courts and their treatment of sexually abused children. Boston: Beacon Press.
Elbogen, E. B., Patry, M., & Scalora, M. J. (2003). The impact of community notification laws on sex offender treatment attitudes. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 26(2), 207–219.
Ericson, R. V. (2007). Crime in an insecure world. Cambridge: Polity.
Fallera, K. C., Birdsalla, W. C., Vandervortb, F., & Henry, J. C. (2006). Can the punishment fit the crime when suspects confess child sexual abuse? Child Abuse and Neglect, 30(7), 815–827.
Farkas, M. A., & Stichman, A. (2002). Sex offender laws: Can treatment, punishment, incapacitation, and public safety be reconciled? Criminal Justice Review, 27(2), 256–283.
Felson, M. (1992). Routine activities and crime prevention: Armchair concepts and practical action. Studies on Crime and Crime Prevention, 1(1), 30–34.
Felson, R. (1997). Routine activities and involvement in violence as actor, witness, or target. Violence and Victims, 12(3), 209–221.
Felson, M. (2002). Crime and everyday life. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Finkelhor, D., Hotaling, G., & Sedlak, A. (1992). The abduction of children by strangers and nonfamliy members. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 7(2), 226–243.
Forde, D. R., & Kennedy, L. W. (1997). Risky lifestyles, routine activities, and the general theory of crime. Justice Quarterly, 14(2), 265–294.
Garland, D. (2001). The culture of control: Crime and social order in contemporary society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gest, T. (2001). Crime and politics: Big government’s erratic campaign for law and order. New York: Oxford.
Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Griffin, T., & Wooldredge, J. (in press). Judges’ reactions to Ohio’s ‘Jessica’s Law’. Crime and Delinquency.
Johnson, C. (2005). Senate passes strong Jessica Lunsford Act. St. Petersburg Times, April 22, p. 3B.
Kappeler, V. E., & Potter, G. W. (2005). The mythology of crime and criminal justice (4th ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
McGough, L. S. (1993). Child witnesses: Fragile voices in the American legal system. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Miethe, T. D., & McDowall, D. (1993). Contextual effects in models of criminal victimization. Social Forces, 71(3), 741–759.
Miethe, T. D., Stafford, M. C., & Sloane, D. (1990). LIfestyle changes and risks of criminal victimization. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 6(4), 357–376.
Milovanovic, D. (Ed.). (1997). Chaos, criminology, and social justice: The New (Dis)order. Westport, CO: Paeger.
Myers, J. E. B. (1998). Legal issues in child abuse and neglect practice. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage Publications.
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (2008). FAQ: AMBER Alert. Retrieved 9/22, 2008, from http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/PageServlet?LanguageCountry=en_US&PageId=2813.
Newburn, T., & Jones, T. (2005). Symbolic politics and penal populism: The Long Shadow of Willie Horton. Crime, Media and Culture, 1(1), 72–87.
O’Reilly, B. (2009). Jessica’s law: A state-by-state report card of child protection law. Retrieved 8/18/09, 2009, from http://www.billoreilly.com/outragefunnels.
Osgood, D. W., Wilson, J. K., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Johnston, L. D. (1996). Routine activities and indididual deviant behavior. American Sociological Review, 61(4), 635–655.
PR Newswire US. (2007). Stop child predators mourns senseless death of Jessica Lunsford. Retrieved 12/6/07, 2007, from http://www.lexisnexis.com/us/lnacademic/results/docview/docview.do?risb=21_T2664564957&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=1&resultsUrlKey=29_T2664564966&cisb=22_T2664564965&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=8054&docNo=8.
Richards, C. (1994). Freed sex offenders should be identified. Chicago Sun-Times, August 7, p. 39.
Rohde, M. (2007). Sex offender residency laws are questioned; Ordinances won’t pass muster in court, some say. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 29, p. 1.
Rudin, J. B. (1996). Megan’s law: Can it stop sexual predators—and at what cost to constitutional rights? Criminal Justice Studies: A Critical Journal of Crime, Law and Society, 11(3), 2–10.
Sasson, T. (1995). Crime talk. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.
Sedlak, A. J., Finkelhor, D., Hammer, D., & Schultz, D. J. (2002). National estimates of missing children: An overview. Washington, D.C.: US Department of Justice.
Siegel, J. (2006a). Dad pushes for sex-crime law. The Columbus Dispatch, March 23, p. 01A.
Siegel, J. (2006b). Flurry of bills deals with sex offenders; Lawmakers want to ensure prison time, proper punishment. The Columbus Dispatch, March 21.
Smith, K. B. (2004). The politics of punishment: Evaluating political explanations of incarceration rates. The Journal of Politics, 66(3), 925–938.
Surette, R. (2007). Media, crime, and criminal justice: Images, realities and policies (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Swaaningen, R. V. (2005). Public safety and management of fear. Theoretical Criminology, 9(3), 289–305.
Taleb, N. N. (2007). The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable. New York: Random House.
Tewksbury, R. (2005). Collateral consequences of sex offender registration. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 21(1), 67–81.
The Associated Press State & Local Wire. (2005). Reports: Man charged in Lunsford killing molested wife’s daughter. The Associated Press.
The Augusta Chronicle (1994, 8/17/1994). Sex perverts protected. The Augusta Chronicle, p. 4.
Tonry, M. (2004). Thinking about crime: Sense and sensibility in American penal culture. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
US Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs. (2008). AMBER Alert: America’s missing: Broadcast emergency response. Retrieved 9/22/08, 2008, from http://www.amberalert.gov/faqs.htm#faq1.
Walker, S. (2006). Sense and nonsense about crime and drugs: A policy guide (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Walker, J. (2007). Advancing science and research in criminal justice/criminology. Justice Quarterly, 24(4), 555–581.
Walters, G. D. (1999). Crime and chaos: Applying nonlinear dynamic principles to problems in criminology. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 43(2), 134–153.
About this article
Cite this article
Griffin, T., Stitt, B.G. Random Activities Theory: The Case for ‘Black Swan’ Criminology. Crit Crim 18, 57–72 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-009-9088-6
- Justice System
- Activity Theory
- Crime Control
- Random Activity
- Routine Activity Theory