Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought
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 twenty years later, the three most populous cities in the United States – 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 Article, we reexamine the 2001 Kelling and Sousa study and independently analyze the crime data from New York City for the 1989-1998 period. 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, that provides a unique opportunity to overcome some of the problems with previous empirical tests of the broken windows hypothesis. Under this program, approximately 4,600 low-income families living in highcrime public housing communities characterized by high rates of social disorder were randomly assigned housing vouchers to move to less disadvantaged and disorderly communities.
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 for the proposition that broken windows policing is the optimal use of scarce law enforcement resources.
Bernard Harcourt & Jens Ludwig,
Broken Windows: New Evidence from New York City and a Five-City Social Experiment,
U. Chi. L. Rev.
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