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  1. It’s About Time: Spatio-temporal aspects of offender decision-making

It’s About Time: Spatio-temporal aspects of offender decision-making

Why do offenders commit their crimes at certain places and times, and not elsewhere or at other times? Researchers in environmental criminology have been studying these questions for decades. Sabine van Sleeuwen (NSCR and Utrecht University) argues that offenders’ spatial knowledge acquired during daily routine activities is not equally applicable to all times of day and week. On Friday 21 January, she will defend her thesis IT'S ABOUT TIME, Spatio-temporal aspects of offender decision-making.

Attending this PhD defense (online) Friday 21 January at 14.15.

According to crime pattern theory (Brantingham & Brantingham, 1981, 2008), offenders commit crime at those places where attractive crime opportunities overlap with their individual awareness spaces. These personal awareness spaces consist of offenders’ major routine activity nodes, such as home, school, work and recreational activities, and the travel paths that connect them. Previous research showed for example that offenders commit crimes near their current and former residential homes, as well as those of close family members. It is also found that offenders are more likely to return to specific target areas where they committed crime before.

Why does an offender choose a certain time?

However, both the theory and related empirical research in environmental criminology have to date remained rather a-temporal, as if the timing of offenders’ routine activities and their crimes plays no role. Previous studies have been mainly concerned with offenders’ choices of where to commit crime, but have barely addressed the timing of those spatial choices nor offenders’ choices of when to commit their crimes. But why would an offender have knowledge about whether a place is attractive for burglary at night, when he usually visits the area during the day?

Time when a place is usually visited by an offender

In her dissertation Van Sleeuwen improves the original crime pattern theory and proposes a time-specific extension: offenders’ spatial knowledge acquired during daily routine activities is not equally applicable to all times of day and week, which influences the locations where they subsequently choose to offend.

Spatial knowledge not equally applicable at all times

To test the novel idea of time-varying applicability of offenders’ awareness spaces, large-scale police data on repeat offenders of a variety of crime types and the specific days and times they committed these different types of offenses were analyzed. In addition, these data were combined with the analysis of self-collected data on the spatio-temporal routine activity and crime patterns of a high-risk offender sample using the Time-specific Activity Space (TAS) survey that was specifically designed for this study. An overall conclusion of this dissertation is that the original crime pattern theory needs a time-specific extension: offenders’ awareness spaces should no longer be conceptualized as time-invariant. According to this theory, offenders commit crime at those places where their individual awareness spaces overlap with the spatial distribution of attractive targets. Van Sleeuwen argues that offenders’ spatial knowledge acquired during daily routine activities is not equally applicable to all times of day or week, which influences the locations where they subsequently choose to offend. The results show that offenders’ knowledge of a neighborhood at a particular time acquired by committing previous crimes in that neighborhood or by visiting routine activity nodes in that neighborhood is related to the commission of crime around that same time.

Similar parts of the week and similar hours of the day

A second conclusion is that offenders are quite consistent in their temporal criminal decision-making. Repeat offenders display strong temporal consistency in their individual offending behavior: they repeatedly commit crime at similar hours of the day and similar parts of the week over and above what is to be expected from the overall temporal crime pattern. The results suggest that the likelihood to commit crime in previously targeted areas is much stronger when a repeat offender had committed the previous offense during similar parts of the week or similar times of the day than when he or she previously targeted the area at different parts of the week or day. In addition, not only previously targeted areas are at increased risk of being targeted at similar times, but also areas they had regularly visited before at the same time of the day.

Knowing the right place and time for a crime might contribute to a safer future

The dissertation shows that offenders’ spatio-temporal patterns of criminal decision-making vary by type of crime and recency of the offenses. For example, the consistency patterns of the repeat offenders in our data were found to be stronger the shorter the time span between their offenses, especially with regard to offenses that were committed within one month. In addition, offenders’ temporal consistency patterns and the likelihood that they return to previously targeted areas at similar tikes are stronger for offenses of the same type of crime than for offenses of a different crime type.
Extending the existing body of research on offenders’ spatial decision-making, the results of this dissertation show that studying the temporal criminal decision-making of individual offenders and its practical implications are also of importance. In the end, knowing the right place and time for a crime might contribute to a safer future.

Attending this PhD defense (online) Friday 21 January at 14.15.
For more information about this PhD defense, see the Utrecht University agenda.

Promotor: Stijn Ruiter
Co-promotor: Wouter Steenbeek

Sabine van Sleeuwen MSc

PhD Candidate

Prof. Stijn Ruiter

Senior Researcher

Dr Wouter Steenbeek

Senior Researcher

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