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Broken Windows Theory

James Q Wilson, a right realist, concluded that the extent to which a community regulates itself has a dramatic impact on crime and deviance. The "broken windows" referred to in the name of the theory is the idea that where there is one broken window there will be many. A broken window is a physical symbol that the residents of a particular neighbourhood do not especially care about it and that low-level deviance is tolerated. The theory influenced policy-makers on both sides of the Atlantic and, most famously, in New York in the 1990s. Their response was zero tolerance policing where the criminal justice system took low-level crime and anti-social behaviour much more seriously than they had in the past. This included "three strikes and you're out" policies where people could get serious custodial sentences for repeated minor offences. The impact of the policy in New York appeared to be dramatic with crime levels (including very serious crimes like murder) falling rapidly. Fans of Broken Windows on the political right in America hailed this as a success, but there are two main criticisms. 1) This policy coincided with a period of economic growth and a reduction in poverty. Those who feel that social conditions are a stronger driver of crime than broken windows suggest that the crime rates in New York fell because the social conditions for people in New York significantly improved. 2) Some accused Broken Windows of achieving control without justice. Yes, the crime rates fell, but people were in prison for very minor misdemeanours. Furthermore, there was evidence to show that the policy affected some minority ethnic groups, such as African Americans and Latin Americans, much more than the majority white population. While poor black people might be arrested for public drunkenness or jay-walking, white middle-class students celebrating the start of their freshman year doing exactly the same thing are tolerated.

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