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Displacement: Crime Prevention Essay

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Updated: Apr 4th, 2022

Displacement refers to offenders’ response to crime blocking or prevention. Criminologists explain that when a crime is prevented it does not disappear; it only gets transformed in some aspect (Barr and Pease, 1990, p. 152). Scholars have identified six categories of change in crime that arise from crime prevention efforts. First, crime prevention results in temporal shifts. Offenders shift the timing when they engage in criminal activities. Second, offenders respond to crime prevention by shifting from one location to another. The shift in location is known as the spatial shift. Offenders also respond by changing their targets. The fourth response regards the methodology of committing. Offenders opt to change the tactic of attacking their targets when efforts to prevent crime are pursued. The fifth form of displacement concerns crime (Barr and Pease, 1990, p. 152). Criminals also respond to crime prevention by picking new types of crime. The last form of displacement relates to the offender. When a society makes effort to control crime, the old offenders are replaced by the new ones.

Some criminologists propose the existence of the free-rider, also known as diffusion of benefits. The protection that a target group or area receives from crime prevention or crackdown efforts focused on another group or area. Crime intervention efforts lead to the dispersion of the beneficial impact beyond the areas that were directly aimed. The concept of unintended benefits is also referred to as the multiplier effect, halo effect, or the free bonus effects. Scholars have identified deterrence and discouragement as the main processes through which the diffusion of crime prevention benefits happens (Clarke and Felson, 1993, p. 170). Deterrence refers to circumstances where criminals overestimate the danger associated with a crime intervention and opts to abstain from committing a crime even in circles not covered by the prevention initiative. Crime crackdown benefits would spread as a result of the criminals’ fear of being apprehended. Discouragement gives attention to costs and benefits associated with offending. It refers to circumstances where crime intervention efforts make the cost of committing an offense greater than the benefits accruing from the crime. The perceived reduction in the benefits associated with committing a crime results in general benefits for the entire community (Clarke and Felson, 1993, p. 172). There exists theoretical support for both displacement and diffusion of benefits. Perspectives that back crime displacement include rational choice, routine activities, and crime pattern theories.

The rational choice theorists hold that crime is a conscious option (Eck, 1993). Offenders are not pushed to crime by circumstances rather; it is a rational choice to participate in deviant activities. Crime results from a cost-benefit analysis of the available alternatives. Crime also depends on the resources available to the offender (Bernasco and Block, 2009). Criminals will, therefore, respond to crime prevention efforts by shifting the event. The proponents of the routine activity perspective explain that crime occurs when there exist routine activities which make offenders converge with suitable targets (Eck, 1993). Equally, lack of protection or guardianship creates a fertile ground for crime to occur. Enhanced guardianship and reduced target suitability should, therefore, yield crime reduction. The perspective suggests that when a crime prevention initiative is enforced criminals will identify other suitable targets or move to areas that lack guardianship. The offender search perspective explains that crime occurs when offenders systematically cross with suitable targets at activity spaces or nodes. The crossing happens at nodes such as edges and along paths with the full awareness of the offender (Eck, 1993). The proponents further explain that when a situational crime prevention program is enforced; criminals travel in search of suitable, unguarded targets. Crime displacement occurred in the offender’s full awareness and activity spaces (Eck, 1993).

The rational choice theory also backs the diffusion of benefits thinking. The theory explains that situational crime prevention deters or discourages crime depending on the perceived costs, risks, efforts, rewards, and benefits associated with a crime. Rational choice criminologists further explain that deterrence occurs when offenders perceive a high level of risk (Clarke & Weisburd, 1994). For instance, when they stand a high chance of being arrested and punished they will abstain from offensive conduct. The entire society will experience a reduced crime rate. Similarly, when offenders feel that the effort needed to commit a crime is too great while the reward is too low, they will get discouraged from committing a crime. It is noteworthy that offenders are also tied to a particular place and operating in new areas is seen as something undesirable and more effort-consuming (Weisburd & Telep, 2012). Deterrence and discouragement occur because offenders lack complete and accurate information. In addition, the victims or offenders aimed at by situational crime prevention programs are networked.

Various research studies have been conducted on displacement and diffusion of benefits perspectives. Empirical studies on displacement are of two categories, research-based on offenders’ interviews and those focusing on crime patterns occurring after an intervention. Offender interviews have been criticized for use of hypothetical situations and, lack of certainty and truthfulness. The hypothetical scenarios lack the essential characteristics of real situations. In addition, there exists no mechanism of checking the honesty in the accounts given by interviewees. Nevertheless, the answers given by offenders when presented with hypothetical situations give cues of the likelihood of displacement happening. A study found that when burglars were presented with several burglary opportunities, they took environmental leads when making choices but they “were also relatively persistent” (Eck, 1993, p. 529). Field research can only demonstrate the existence, form, or magnitude of displacement.

Thirty-three studies drawn from different nations and continents gave reliable data on displacement effects. The studies cover a broad spectrum of criminal conduct and crime opportunity blocking techniques (Clarke, 2001, p. 16). Only three of the studies identified leads of adequate displacement, twelve of the investigations found some shifts in crime while eight found no evidence of displacement. Target and spatial displacement were identified in these studies. The methodology used in these studies has earned them immense criticism. The studies did not carry out tests to relate displacement to crime prevention intervention. The sample sizes were also small for detection of displacement to take place (Clarke, 2001, p. 26). Several studies claim to have identified rider benefits resulting from crime crackdown efforts. Unfortunately, the studies reporting diffusion of benefits are a few. Diffusion of benefits, like displacement effects, is seldom examined because few people considered this result to be an acceptable possibility. Though the evidence on displacement effects is mixed, its possibility exists. Though displacement is not a major threat to situational crime prevention, it is a problem that security agents must take into consideration (Clarke, 2001, p. 26).


Barr, R. and Pease, K. (1990). Crime placement, displacement, and deflection. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Bernasco, W. and Block, R. (2009). Where offenders choose to attack: a discrete choice model of robberies in Chicago. Criminology, 47, 93-130.

Clarke, R. V. (2001). Rational Choice: Explaining criminals and crime. Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing.

Clarke, R.V., & Felson, M. (1993). Introduction: Criminology, routine activity, and rational choice. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press.

Clarke, R.V., & Weisburd, D. (1994). Diffusion of crime control benefits. In R.V. Clarke (Ed.), Crime prevention studies (pp. 5-31). Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

Eck, J.E. (1993). The threat of crime displacement. Criminal Justice Abstracts, 25(3), 527-546.

Weisburd, D., & Telep, C.W. (2012). Spatial displacement and diffusion of crime control benefits revisited: New evidence on why crime doesn’t just move around the corner. In N. Tilley & G. Farrell (Eds.), The reasoning criminologist: Essays in honour of Ronald V. Clarke (pp. 142-159). New York, NY: Routledge.

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