Broken Windows Theory

james q wilson

Broken windows theory states that monitoring and maintaining urban environments in a well-ordered condition prevents vandalism as well as an escalation into more serious crime, i.e. failure to replace a broken window invites further vandalism to the building and neighborhood. It is a criminological theory introduced in an 1982 article in the ‘Atlantic Monthly’ by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, which has received support from several empirical studies, and has also been the subject of a large body of criticism. Former NY mayor, Rudy Giuliani  was a proponent of the broken windows theory, and aggressively policed minor offenses like subway fare evasion, public urination, and ‘squeegee men,’ and other panhandlers. Crime dropped precipitously during Giuliani’s tenure, but so did crime nationwide during a period of extended economic growth in the 1990s.

A successful strategy for preventing vandalism, according to the theory, is to fix the problems when they are small. Repair the broken windows within a short time, a day or a week, and the tendency is that vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage. Clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate (or for the rate of littering to be much less). The theory thus makes two major claims: that further petty crime and low-level anti-social behavior will be deterred, and that major crime will, as a result, be prevented. Criticism of the theory has tended to focus only on the latter claim.

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