In 1982, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling suggested in an influential article in the Atlantic Monthly that targeting minor disorder could help reduce more serious crime. More than 20 years later, the three most populous cities in the U.S. – New York, Chicago and, most recently, Los Angeles – have all adopted at least some aspect of Wilson and Kelling's theory, primarily through more aggressive enforcement of minor misdemeanor laws. Remarkably little, though, is currently known about the effect of broken windows policing on crime.
According to a recent National Research Council report, existing research does not provide strong support for the broken windows hypothesis – with the possible exception of a 2001 study of crime trends in New York City by George Kelling and William Sousa.
In this paper, we re-examine the Kelling and Sousa 2001 study and independently analyze the crime data from New York City for the period 1989-98. In addition, we present results from an important social experiment known as Moving to Opportunity (MTO) underway in five cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as Baltimore and Boston, which provides what is arguably the first truly rigorous test of the broken windows hypothesis. Under this program, approximately 4,800 low-income families living in high-crime public housing communities characterized by high rates of social disorder were randomly assigned housing vouchers to move to less disadvantaged and disorderly communities. The MTO program thus provides the ideal test of the broken windows theory.
Taken together, the evidence from New York City and from the five-city social experiment provides no support for a simple first-order disorder-crime relationship as hypothesized by Wilson and Kelling, nor that broken windows policing is the optimal use of scarce law enforcement resources.
Bernard E. Harcourt & Jens Ludwig,
Broken Windows: New Evidence from New York City and a Five-City Social Experiment,
University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 73, 2006; University of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 93
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/1371