Evaluating Broken Windows Theory of Crime

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Originally proposed by Dr. James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, broken windows theory suggests that a society or subset of society that appears to be lawless will itself breed lawlessness.  Broken windows theory is most closely associated with conservative sociology, focusing on social cohesion and law and order.  Its ideas have had great influence on law enforcement policy from the 1980s to the present, but its proposals have not always proven accurate.

The central theme of broken windows theory holds that when neighborhoods appear to be broken down, disordered, and generally unfriendly, they serve as a magnet to delinquent behavior and crime.  This is essentially to say that communities that lack in any sense of social cohesion and mutual interest witness a significantly higher risk of criminality.

To present their theory, Wilson and Kelling use the example of a building with a broken window that remains unrepaired.  This image of disorder then encourages further incivility, telling residents and other passersby that it doesn’t matter and that no one cares.  This encourages further uncivilized activity which eventually balloons the neighborhood into a slummy crime-filled area of lawlessness.  In run down neighborhoods, other examples of social disorder include damaged or boarded up homes and buildings, graffiti and vandalism, loitering or solicitation, and disorderly conduct by people in the area.

Broken windows theory proposes that crime is not necessarily caused by broken down neighborhoods, but that they become magnets for crime and delinquent behavior because of their disorganization.  Residents may become more lax in their civility and criminals and other delinquents may then be drawn to these areas of lawlessness.

As a result of Wilson and Kelling’s proposal of broken windows, many law enforcement agencies began to take aim at these so-called “broken windows” issues to protect the civility and peacefulness of neighborhoods.  Several law enforcement agencies began to place a greater focus on minor or victimless crimes like street prostitution, drugs, vandalism, littering, and loitering.  While some of these currently defined crimes may be unpleasant, they represent a shift in police resources away from more serious crimes in a hopeful effort to prevent many serious crimes, or at least to protect certain communities from crime.

Broken windows theory seems to ignore many of the actual motivations behind crime.  While it may have an argument to account for why some areas experience more crime and delinquency than others, it fails in explaining the underlying causes of serious crime. Sociopathic behavior occurs for the in large part because sociopaths can’t be deterred.  Does the appearance of a community have a greater effect on its criminality than the character and circumstances of its residents?

It also misses the idea that many of the victimless crimes of “disorder” are only associated with criminality because they are illegal.  In much of the same way that alcohol prohibition created a new underground criminal enterprise, do not marijuana prohibition and the criminalization of prostitution and other victimless endeavors promote criminality more so than the activities themselves?

Where broken windows theory really falls short is its inability to account for the origins of disorder.  How are the first seeds of broken down neighborhoods planted?  There is no explanation of where these unwanted people and crimes come from – only of where they are drawn.

Broken windows theory serves little use as an explanation of crime, but it does have some value in explaining the locations of high concentrations of crime.  Areas that appear disorganized and lawless often are as they appear, acting as safe havens for at least some types of crime.  However, the reality is that crime can occur in any area regardless of how it looks, as far more factors – more important factors – are involved than the appearance of disorder.

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