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The Broken Windows theory holds that visible indicators of disorder, such as vandalism, loitering, and broken windows, invite criminal activity and should be prosecuted as a result.
This has been tested in several real-world settings. It was heavily enforced in the mid 1990s under New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, Lowell, Massachusetts, and the Netherlands later experimented with this theory.
The broken windows theory states that any visible signs of crime and civil disorder, such as broken windows (hence, the name of the theory) vandalism, loitering, public drinking, jaywalking, and transportation fare evasion, create an urban environment that promotes even more crime and disorder (Wilson & Kelling, 1982).
As such, policing these misdemeanors will help create an ordered and lawful society in which all citizens feel safe and crime rates, including violent crime rates, are low.
In a typical urban environment, social norms and monitoring are not clearly known. As a result, individuals will look for certain signs and signals that provide both insight into the social norms of the area as well as the risk of getting caught violating those norms.
Those who support the broken windows theory argue that one of those signals is the area’s general appearance. In other words, an ordered environment, one that is safe and has very little lawlessness, sends the message that this neighborhood is routinely monitored and criminal acts are not tolerated.
A major criticism of this theory argues that it misinterprets the relationship between disorder and crime by drawing a causal chain between the two. Instead, some researchers argue that a third factor, collective efficacy, or the cohesion among residents combined with shared expectations for the social control of public space, is the actual causal agent that explains crime rates (Sampson & Raudenbush, 1999).
Given its controversial nature, broken windows policing is not explicitly used today as a way of regulating crime in most major cities. However, there are still traces of this theory that remain.
And the racial and class biases that result from such an approach to law enforcement have definitely not disappeared.
Crime regulation is not an easy feat, but the broken windows theory provides an approach to reducing offenses and maintaining order in society.
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