In 1985, Clarke and Cornish proposed the rational choice framework to study criminal decision making. According to their approach, decisions of a criminal nature are not different than any other type of decision, and are thus orientated toward the satisfaction of commonplace needs. We adopted this approach and looked at a sample of 898 male sexual offenders as decision makers, framing their sexually coercive decisions as means to obtain desired outcomes. Clarke and Cornish specifically proposed four models to understand criminal decision making (initial involvement, crime events, persistence, and desistance); aspects of these models were used in three distinct studies. Study 1 explored what Clarke and Cornish called “background factors” of decision making and it examined three particular types of factors: traits, states, and knowledge. Results indicated that offenders’ personality traits, their specialized knowledge about sexual coercion, and their states at the onset of their offenses all impacted decision making during sexual crimes and over their sexual criminal careers in identifiable patterns, suggesting a more direct influence of background factors than initially hypothesized by Clarke and Cornish. Study 2 investigated how the various sexually coercive decisions made in the course of sexual crime incidents were linked to the resulting outcomes experienced by offenders. Results indicated that specific offending decisions about the selection of a victim, the location and time of the offense, and the method of assault were all found to contribute to the production and avoidance of, respectively, specific immediate positive and negative outcomes for offenders, validating Clarke and Cornish’s concept of bounded rationality. Finally, Study 3 investigated the aftermath of experiences of outcomes in offenders and looked specifically at evidence indicating possible reinforcing and/or deterrent effects of outcomes experienced in prior sex crimes on offenders’ decisions to persist in sexual offending after release. Analyses indicated that the experience of previous positive outcomes in sexual crime is a significant explanatory factor of offenders’ decisions to persist in or desist from sexual crime upon release, indicating that Clarke and Cornish’s rational choice approach is a valid framework for examining decisions made about the direction of a criminal career.
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Thesis advisor: Beauregard, Eric
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