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The Routine Activity Theory Applied to Corrections: Why We Need Quality Rounds
By Andrew Nolen, Officer, MSCJ/FP
Published: 03/07/2011

9 o clock One of the first things that any Criminal Justice college student learns is the various social theories and how they apply to crime and victims of crime. While there is a multitude of theories out there that represents a good majority of ways to explain why or how to keep a crime from being committed the best, in my opinion, is the Routine Activities Theory.

The Routine activities theory was designed by Cohen and Felson in 1979 when trying to find a reason for urban crime rates. The basic theory stated that criminal events originate in the routines of everyday life. They stated that there must be three elements involved in order for a crime to be committed: a motivated offender, a suitable target and the lack of guardianship. The routine activity theory is very sound theory and actually can find a good place in corrections.

Throughout ones tenure the mantra of making rounds that are effective, timely, and not routine is drilled into every officer. With good reason as when rounds are not completed correctly a variety of problems can occur from simple property thefts to the dreaded suicide. Interestingly enough the majority of your suicides, statistically, occur mostly in your living areas. So let’s break down the theory and apply it to corrections.

The first element is a motivated offender. Do we have motivated persons in our facilities? Sure we do, however, the existence of a prior offense is not the only identifier for a motivated offender as any person can commit a crime within a heartbeats notice and give no indication of ever being a criminal. To the extreme extent is the fact that within institutions there are gangs and gang members. These individuals are always on the prowl looking for prey and jump at every chance they get. Differing theories exist as to why gang members join a gang and develop the gang mentality. Regardless of this the problem does exist and with the possibilities of greed, anger or any other psychological factors in play the probabilities of any person becoming a motivated offender is greater then what most would admit.

The second element is a suitable target. There are multitudes of suitable targets and this is not limited to just people. This includes property of inmates, visitors, staff and the state. Anything of high value would be considered a suitable target (i.e. tobacco, a c.d. left unattended, commissary bags full of the days purchase with a frail old man dragging it back to his lock, etc). To have the property stolen by another inmate is an act that could cause a traumatic event to the extent of others getting harmed. The mere ownership of the simplest items is valuable to the inmate population and to have an officer that is not honorable in their job duties allowing inmates to “kick the boxes” of other inmates would entice a disturbance in any lock.

The third and final element is the lack of guardianship. Capable guardianship can be anybody that is able to prevent or halt a crime from being committed. In fact Cohen and Felson stated that the most basic of capable guardian is the everyday citizen going about their business therefore enacting social control through watching, warning, sanctioning and so forth. When we discuss this theory in the correctional setting it is the correctional officer who is the guardian.

As an Officer your presence alone will prevent a crime from occurring. Sure, there are instances where crime will happen at any given time whether an officer is present or not, however, for the most part, there is less of a chance for a crime with presence alone. Think back to how many times a fight broke out after you left an area.

This theory extends into the public sector too. How many times do you get asked “may I help you” at stores? The ideology is that if every associate in the stores greet you and make eye contact that one would be wary of stealing from that store. Companies have spent millions to find sound solutions to criminal behaviors within their stores and just greeting a customer was discovered to have the highest impact on whether or not a crime would be committed.

So let’s take this example into the corrections field. As Officers you are already a prominent figure for the guardian part of the theory. However, take that one step further and greet inmates as you go by. Let your presence be known other than the uniform you wear. By using your basic interpersonal communications skills when encountering inmates in any area no matter what they are doing you are not only establishing yourself as an approachable type of person but also an officer that is not afraid of doing their job. This then builds a professional rapport not only amongst the inmates but staff as well.

Regardless of your feelings towards your institution or those around you one thing is for certain you were hired to do a job and in that basic position description is quality rounds. It is in your favor to accomplish this simplest of tasks. When something really serious happens you are the one who has to answer for your actions.

Editor' note: Andrew Nolen has been a Correctional Officer for over 14 years and is currently working towards his Masters in Forensic Psychology. Over the years he has worked in both Medium and Close security institutions and has been a member of the Special Response Team. Andrew is currently a Crisis Negotiator with interests in Gang investigations and Religious Studies.

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  8. dpdpar5 on 03/13/2011:

    Good article. I to think this a sound theory. Really you are talking about "What Works" strategies and implementation. In any type of industry that involves people, a connection on a certain level must occur. Corrections is NO different. Many inmate incidents are indeed the result of a sense of feeling like an unknown as well as low self. Making a substancial connection will no doubt decrease incidents and promote higher security. However the big problem is facilitating organizational change that will change thinking starting with administrators and down to the rank and file. We must transform the why we think about what it is we do. Time to think out of the box and explore new and innovative techniques. Deciding to change is the start to reform. DPD

  9. booch on 03/10/2011:

    Thanks for the information and the techniques are very effective as applied. As Officers in any venue, we are guardians and we must be effective for our own safety and those within our authority. The key is effective interpersonal communications in all encounters with inmates in your assigned area. You control your area and are responsible for all inmates and property in your respective work center. The action or lack of inter action will indicate to the inmates your attitude, ability, confidence and authority. The Officer they will respect or manipulate. You must be approachable to all inmates and rapport is a must for you to develop a trust and the way you communicate satification or correction when addressing behavior observed. Get to know your inmate population and have a good idea of all the factors they deal with within your span of control. A good knowlege base of all of the rules, conditions, and processes the inmates use and adhere to on a daily basis will aid in the overall success of your unit.

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