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James Q. Wilson’s Legacy

| March 2, 2012

Today we lost James Q. Wilson, one of the nation’s most admired conservative intellectuals who developed the influential idea of broken windows policing that was associated with the dramatic crime drop in New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The idea behind broken windows policing was that law enforcement should not ignore minor issues such as broken windows, graffiti, and the jumping of subway turnstiles because they create an atmosphere of lawlessness that leads to more serious law-breaking.

Wilson’s passing provides an opportunity to correct a misconception, which somehow posited that broken windows policing and reducing unnecessary incarceration were somehow inconsistent. In fact, they were reinforcing. The facts bear this out. From 1993 to 2001, the time when New York City became the nation’s safest large city, three things happened at the same time: crime plummeted, broken windows policing was used, and the number of offenders in the New York City jails dropped from 17,307 to 14,490.

It is commonsensical that when you have an atmosphere of disorder, such as streets lined with graffiti, it leads people to believe that anything goes. People who otherwise would grudgingly obey the law feel liberated to violate the law. Many offenders are immature even as adults, and we can all recall as kids offering the excuse to our parents that every other kid is doing this or that.

Of course, this phenomenon occurs in both an individual and socialized way. That is, if the youth who starts out just drawing graffiti and jumping turnstiles in the subway is never caught, he may conclude that he can get away with more and more serious crimes – it is natural to push the envelope. Then there is the wider effect – when other individuals see disorder and see their friends getting away with these things, they join in the feeding frenzy. I would also imagine that the civilizing forces in the neighborhood may give up if they don’t see law enforcement as interested or effective.

Now, here is the key. The answer is not putting everyone in prison for minor violations. The answer is deter more of it through a police presence that is directed to the hot spots, which New York City identified with data-driven policing (COMPStat) and to issue swift, sure, and commensurate sanctions for such conduct involving fines, probation, community service, etc. In fact, that is what happened in New York City, which boasts one of the nation’s best probation systems. The prisons that have recently been closed in upstate New York are largely due to New York City’s success in deterring crime and intervening early to halt an offender’s progression to more serious crimes, particularly youths.

Broken windows policing helped to break the cycle of crime and should properly be seen as fully consistent with reducing the need for incarceration. In short, James Q. Wilson contributed much to social science and public policy and, among these contributions, is a method of policing that can lead to both less crime and lower costs.

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MARC A. LEVIN is Right on Crime’s Policy Director, as well as the Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  Based in Austin, Texas, Levin is an attorney and an accomplished author on legal and public policy issues.  Levin served as a law clerk to Judge Will Garwood on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and Staff Attorney at the Texas Supreme Court.  In 1999, he graduated with honors from the University of Texas with a B.A. in Plan II Honors and Government.  In 2002, Levin received his J.D. with honors from the University of Texas School of Law.  Levin’s articles on law and public policy have been featured in national and international media outlets that regularly turn to him for conservative analysis of states’ criminal justice challenges.

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