Broken Windows Theory

Jan 7, 2011

dictionary-150What is the broken windows theory?

The broken windows theory refers to an idea set forth by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article that keeping urban environments orderly and fixing small discretions will prevent further vandalism and escalation into more serious crimes. The theory advises the police force to fix problems when they are minor and claims that further low-level offenses will be avoided and major crime will therefore be prevented.

What's the significance?

The theory has led to many reforms in criminal policy and been implemented in a some cities, including New York City. But critics say that it confuses correlation with causality. Some social scientists have revisited the studies that support the theory and found that there is a low relationship between disorder and serious crime. Some fear that giving police broad discretion in low-level intervention would be harmful in minority communities and people could be arrested simply for being undesirable. It also turns minor offenses into harmful acts and leads some to think that serious crime is always preceded by small offenses. This leads to the idea that by policing the minor acts, a city can prevent the more serious ones. The theory also relies on separating people into "law abiders" and "disorderly people" and delineating "order" and "disorder", but these distinctions may not be easy to make or have an intrinsic reality.

Who's talking about it?

Mike Konczal points out that the theory is behind an increase in the US prison population...Bernard E. Harcourt has written about the theory's false promise and challenges the data behind it...The high number of vacant houses due to the foreclosure crisis has led to a resurgence of the theory for a Milwaukee lawmaker and other officials in other cities...Conservative Daniel Henninger says, "Earmarks, pork, corporate carve-outs and all that are Congress's broken windows."

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