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Situational offender

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In the study of crime, a situational offender is a person who commits crimes only when in an environment which permits or encourages those acts.

This is common in sex crimes; see situational sexual behavior. One example involves otherwise law-abiding citizens of developed nations, where strict laws prohibit child molestation who travel to Third World countries as child sex tourists, where extreme poverty, lack of infrastructure and lack of police affords them the opportunity to practice child molestation with virtual impunity. This ties in with the very high rate of child prostitution in the developing world.

Another example is violent crime. Many violent criminals are only violent in certain contexts. For example, they may be violent towards their families but not in the outside world, or vice versa. Another example is football hooliganism.

However, the term "situational offender" can be gravely misleading since almost all crimes are situational. In other words, in almost every crime it is not sufficient to have a predisposed offender. There must also be a target which tempts or provokes the individual, and there must be the absence of restraining features such as a capable guardian, or physical security (see rational choice theory for an example of such theories of restraints and opportunities). Perhaps an exception can be made for those unusual offenders who have personality disorders or who are psychopathic, and who may offend in the absence of what most people would regard as reasonable temptation, provocation or opportunity; but for the rest, the environment is a powerful determinant of behaviour.

There is a school of academic study known as environmental criminology (or situational criminology), whose leading figures include Ken Pease (UK), Marcus Felson (US) and Ron Clarke (US). Most economists who have studied crime also assert that situational factors are powerful drivers of offending. Of course, in a more politicised context, virtually all schools of thought about crime concede that situations influence offending rates: those on the liberal left blame social ills such as poverty, while those on the conservative right tend to blame lack of effective discipline and deterrence.

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