Broken Windows Theory Broken [...]

The broken windows theory is a sociological explanation of how “good” areas go “bad” and how bad areas go good. In the theory, tolerance of small offenses (such vandalism) leads to increases in larger offenses (such as murder). Application of policies informed by the theory were credited for New York City’s decline in crime in the 1990’s. However, there are many reasons to doubt this explanation.

Homicide dropped nationally in the 1990s, not just in New York City. (source)
Homicide dropped nationally in the 1990s, not just in New York City. (source)

The biggest reason to doubt that New York’s crackdown on smaller offenses led to reduced crime over the 1990s is that crime in America fell everywhere, whether “Broken Windows” policies were enforced or not.

While New York may have had a greater reduction in crime than other cities, the minimal differences can be explained as regression to the mean — essentially the areas that had the highest escalation of crime in the 1970s and 1980s experienced the greatest declines as crime reverted to its historical trend. Harcourt and Ludwig show that this mean regression can account for almost all of the New York City decline. [ html]

A second area of concern is that it is unclear if what is really be observed in the “broken windows” correlation is influence of a third factor: economics. It’s possible that saying communities that have more broken windows have more murder is simply equivalent to saying “poor areas have higher homicide rates”.

Over the past two decades, criminologists have largely come to see the broken windows effect as minor at best and harmful at worst. Summarizing the research in 2004, David Thacher concluded:

Over the past few years, however, social science has not been kind to the broken windows theory. A number of scholars reanalyzed the initial studies that appeared to support it, arguing in particular that Wesley Skogan’s seminal study of the relationship between disorder and crime did not demonstrate the strong relationship that broken window proponents have claimed. Others pressed forward with new, more sophisticated studies of the relationship between disorder and crime. The mostprominent among them concluded that the relationship between disorder and serious crime is modest, and even that relationship is largely an artifact of more fundamental social forces. [ pdf]

Another line of thought is making small offenses capital crimes backfires. See Penalty Compression.

Broken Windows Theory brought in Compstat which created Perverse Incentives

Sometimes allowing small violations can lead to escalation. See Malheur’s Broken Window