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Causes of Crime - Broken Windows

serious crimes disorder minor

In the 1990s a new idea spread through the criminal justice field concerning the influence of a person's social environment on crime rates. The idea was that general disorder in the neighborhood leads to increased antisocial behavior and eventually to serious crime. For most of the twentieth century, police primarily reacted to serious crimes such as rape, murder, and robbery often with little overall success in curbing crime rates. "Broken Windows," referring to a neighborhood of abandoned vehicles, vacant buildings with actual broken windows, and litter scattered around, is an idea that contends much of serious crime comes from civil disorder. So, the thinking went, if authorities eliminated disorder, then serious crimes would drop.

Disorder creates fear among citizens of unsafe streets; they avoid public areas allowing criminals to gain a foothold. The neighborhood goes into a downward spiral because as crime increases, then disorder increases further. Back and forth the spiralgoes. During the 1990s New York police commissioner William Bratton aggressively applied Broken Windows theory to New York City neighborhoods. His department attacked minor crimes such as public drinking, panhandling (begging for money), prostitution (selling sex for money), and various other kinds of disorderly conduct.

Once minor offenses were significantly reduced in an area, the number of serious crimes decreased as well. Felonies decreased by 27 percent after only two years. One factor they found was that many people committing minor crimes were also the ones committing more serious offenses. For example, by cracking down on people evading subway fares, police found many offenders carried illegal weapons and had outstanding arrest warrants. Subway crimes of all types dropped dramatically after enforcing collection of fares.

Police found Broken Windows a convenient way to control serious crime at less cost. As some critics also pointed out, it was simpler for the city to crack down on minor crimes than address social problems like poverty and limited education opportunities —which probably caused much of the criminal behavior in the Broken Window communities in the first place.

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