Vinnie’s Mom sent him to the pharmacy to pick up her medication. Like a good son he walked the eight blocks to help out his Mom with this important errand. The pharmacist gave Vinnie the prescription after charging his Mom’s account and put it in a bag for him to carry home. On his way out of the store Vinnie noticed a display with the latest earplugs that would work great with his smart phone. The price however was $19.95—more money than he could afford. Vinnie noticed no clerk was at the check-out counter. She was stocking shelves two rows back, out of sight. No one, neither customers nor store employees were between him and the door. The opportunity was too good. He carefully, deftly, took an earplug package, dropped it in his bag and walked out. He heaved a sigh of relief when no security alarm went off as he exited the store.
Did Vinnie commit a crime? Yes, he did! But Vinnie is a good kid. …not a juvenile delinquent. He’s never done a crime before, never hurt anyone, helps out his Mom. But he committed a crime, even while helping his Mom with an important errand. It didn’t seem like such a bad thing. He heard stories from friends at school about how they “got stuff for free!” “Lotsa kids did it, and hardly anyone ever got caught.”
Vinnie’s right: only 2 percent are ever caught. But it’s a serious crime. According to the National Retail Security Survey, employee theft and shoplifting cost $49 billion a year. Criminologists describe shoplifting and employee theft as a “rational” or “choice” type of crime that occurs through “routine activities“.1
In contrast to other crimes, shoplifting is not done out of anger or passion; no one is assaulted or threatened, and it’s not specific to social class, age, gender, or other social characteristics. It’s more easily rationalized (and therefore more common) than other crimes. “I’m not hurting anyone.” “Stores jack up their prices too high anyway.” Ironically that last statement is true in part because the cost of retail theft by a few drives up the price for all of us!
Understanding the causes directs us to the “cure.” Three factors explain rational choice crime like shoplifting: (1) the availability of suitable targets of crime; (2) the absence of guardians; and (3) the presence of motivated offenders.
The “suitable target of crime” for Vinnie was the display of earplugs conveniently located near the exit of the store. The absence of a store clerk (a “guardian”) at the counter made the crime possible. But how often had Vinnie or every one of us been in a similar situation when we could have walked out of a store without paying? The opportunities for crime are endless! Rational choice crime therefore also requires a third factor: a “motivated offender” to pull it off. “Motivated offenders” are willing to take risks of getting caught and they justify or rationalize their actions: “no one’s getting hurt, it’s not a real crime, it’s not a big deal!”
Coronavirus and Crime
Vinnie’s Uncle Bill is an ambulance driver. He admired his uncle and would like to have a job like him some day. Helping transport injured and sick people to a hospital is a great thing to do. But Uncle Bill tested positive for the Coronavirus while doing his “everyday activity” of transporting injured and ill people to the hospital. The coronavirus does what viruses do: they infect people, especially when they are not protected, when there’s no “guardian.”
To reduce “everyday” or “rational choice” crimes requires at least one of three preventative measures: reduce the number of “suitable targets”; increase protective measures or “guardians”; and reduce the number of “motivated offenders.”
The first two measures are fairly straightforward. Stores, banks, and similar businesses all reduce “suitable targets” and increase “guardians” (visible and invisible). To reduce the spread of coronavirus, government and health officials are insisting upon personal behaviors and habits that will reduce the spread of the virus. We know the CDC guidelines: wash our hands, avoid close contact, and more.
Reducing the number of “motivated offenders” is a greater challenge. To discourage Vinnie and others from stealing requires education, socialization, character development and more. You get it. Instilling ethical and moral principles of “right” and “wrong” even in the absence of that “guardian” is a lengthy process and one that depends on all of us as role models. Yes, we’re all in this together!
Stretching an already imperfect analogy a bit farther, changing the “motivation” of the coronavirus and its ill effects on our bodies requires well-tested vaccines or anti-bodies that can fight off the virus. Changing “motivated offenders” and developing effective medications against a virus both take time, research, and dedicated efforts of thousands of people.
It’s complicated and requires knowledge and expertise; and yet it’s also simple and begins with each of us. We know the importance of family and parental support, of childhood education and nurture. But our support for parental leaves, childcare and public health ranks well below similar democratic, industrialized nations. America’s system of taxpayer support for public schools results in what one writer called “savage inequalities” among rich and poor school districts.2 Schools with the greatest needs get the least funding.
Most Americans have never faced a pandemic like this one. But this is not our first one. The 1918 influenza pandemic claimed the lives of 50 million worldwide and 675,000 in the U.S.
Historians remind us of a quotation by George Santayana more than 100 years ago: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The coronavirus pandemic has taken many lives, altered everyday activities and instilled fear. It is like crime, except that we cannot place the blame on those “motivated offenders”!
We’re learning from this experience. The devastation and widespread effects on the entire nation are reminding us that history does repeat itself. The greatest threats to our safety and well-being are not always crime, terrorism, and international conflict. We would do well to remember similar threats in our history and be prepared to face them.
The words of Moses are instructive: “See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe…. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who… will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6).
The words of Job: “With God are wisdom and strength; he has counsel and understanding” (Job 12:13).
Words attributed to King Solomon (6th century BCE): “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6).
“Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body” (Proverbs 3:7).
“Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one bungler destroys much good” (Ecclesiastes 9:18).
1See e.g., Marcus Felson, Crime and Everyday Life. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1994.)
2Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991).