Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities by George L. Kelling and Catherine Coles is a criminology and urban sociology book published in 1996, about crime and strategies to contain or eliminate it from urban neighborhoods.
The book is based on an article titled "Broken Windows" by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, which appeared in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. The title comes from the following example:
A successful strategy for preventing vandalism, say the book's authors, is to fix the problems when they are small. Repair the broken windows within a short time, say, a day or a week, and the tendency is that vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage. Clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate (or for the rate of littering to be much less). Problems do not escalate and thus respectable residents do not flee a neighborhood.
The theory thus makes two major claims: that further petty crime and low-level anti-social behavior will be deterred, and that major crime will, as a result, be prevented. Criticism of the theory has tended to focus only on the latter claim.
The book's author, George L. Kelling, was hired as a consultant to the New York City Transit Authority in 1985, and robust measures to test the Broken Windows theory were implemented by David Gunn. Graffiti vandalism was intensively targeted, and the subway system was cleaned line by line and car by car from 1984 until 1990. Kelling has also been hired as a consultant to the LAPD and to the Boston Police Department.
In 1990, William J. Bratton became head of the New York City Transit Police. Bratton described George L. Kelling as his "intellectual mentor", and implemented zero tolerance of fare-dodging, easier arrestee processing methods and background checks on all those arrested. Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani also adopted the strategy more widely in New York City, from his election in 1993, under the rubrics of "zero tolerance" and "quality of life".
Thus, Giuliani's "zero tolerance" roll out was part of an interlocking set of wider reforms, crucial parts of which had been underway since 1985. Giuliani had the police even more strictly enforce the law against subway fare evasion, and stopped public drinkers, urinators, and the "squeegee men" who had been wiping windshields of stopped cars and demanding payment. Rates of both petty and serious crime fell suddenly and significantly, and continued to drop for the following ten years (see: the 2001 study of crime trends in New York by George Kelling and William Sousa).
Similar success occurred in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the late 1990s with its Safe Streets Program. Operating under the theory that Westerners use roadways much in the same way that Easterners use subways, the developers of the program reasoned that lawlessness on the roadways had much the same effect as the problem individuals in New York subways. This program was extensively reviewed by NHTSA and published in a case study.
Critics point to the fact that rates of major crimes also dropped in many other US cities during the 1990s, both those that had adopted "zero tolerance" policies and those that had not.
Other research has pointed out that the "zero tolerance" effect on serious crime is difficult to disentangle from other initiatives happening at around the same time in New York. These initiatives were 1) the police reforms described above, 2) programs that moved over 500,000 people into jobs from welfare at a time of economic buoyancy, and 3) housing vouchers that enabled poor families to move to better neighborhoods.
Alternative explanations that have been put forward include:
Among academics, David Thacher (Assistant Professor of Public Policy & Urban Planning at the University of Michigan) stated in a 2004 paper that:
"...social science has not been kind to the broken windows theory. A number of scholars reanalyzed the initial studies that appeared to support it ... Others pressed forward with new, more sophisticated studies of the relationship between disorder and crime. The most prominent 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."Thacher goes on to state that: "These challenges to the broken windows theory have not yet discredited order maintenance policing with policymakers or the public."
In the best-seller More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2000), economist John Lott, Jr. examined the use of the broken windows approach as well as community and problem oriented policing programs in cities over 10,000 in population over two decades. He found that the impact of these policing policies were not very consistent across different types of crime. He described the pattern as almost "random". For the broken windows approach, Lott found that the approach was actually associated with murder and auto theft rising and rapes and larceny falling. Increased arrest rates, affirmative action policies for hiring police, and right-to-carry laws were much more important in explaining the changes in crime rates.
In the best-seller Freakonomics, economist Steven D. Levitt and co-author Stephen J. Dubner cast doubt on the notion that the Broken Windows theory was wholly responsible for New York's drop in crime. He instead noticed that years before the 1990s, abortion was legalized. Women who were least able to raise kids (the poor, addicts and unstable) were able to get abortions, so the number of children being born in broken families was decreasing. Most crimes committed in New York are committed by 16-24 year old males; when this demographic decreased in number the crime rate followed.
However, columnist Steve Sailer pointed out certain flaws in Levitt's and Dubner's analysis; refutations of their analysis also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. The former quotes economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, who said, "[t]here are no statistical grounds for believing that the hypothetical youths who were aborted as fetuses would have been more likely to commit crimes had they reached maturity than the actual youths who developed from fetuses and carried to term." Also, murder among the first post-Roe v. Wade cohort was, in some states, 3.1 times higher than the last group born before legalized abortion. These data show crime increasing after the advent of legalized abortion, thus contradicting Levitt's and Dubner's conclusions. Furthermore, increased rates of incarceration accounts for some of the decline in crime rates discussed by Levitt and Dubner; the vicissitudes of the crack cocaine business also account for part of the rise and fall of crime rates during the period under discussion.
In the Winter 2006 edition of the University of Chicago Law Review, Bernard Harcourt and Jens Ludwig looked at the later Department of Housing and Urban Development program that re-housed inner-city project tenants in New York into more orderly neighborhoods. The Broken Windows theory would suggest that these tenants would commit less crime once moved, due to the more stable conditions on the streets. Harcourt and Ludwig found instead that the tenants continued to commit crime at the same rate.
In a further study in 2007 called "Reefer Madness" in the journal Criminology and Public Policy, Harcourt and Ludwig find further evidence confirming that "mean reversion" fully explained the changes in crime rates in the different precincts in New York during the 1990s.
Andrew Hunt and David Thomas use Fixing Broken Windows as a metaphor for avoiding software entropy in software development. The term has also found its way into web-site development.