Last week, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced that the police would crack down on misdemeanor offenses, including loud parties, unleashed dogs, public drinking, and even littering. He said, “For those of us familiar with the ‘broken windows’ theory and reality, we know that these kinds of community disorder issues are the precursors to the violent crimes that may follow.” The Boston Globe says that recent academic studies has challenged the broken windows theory, opening a debate on its effectiveness.
University of Chicago law professor Bernard Harcourt and Georgetown University public policy professor Jens Ludwig attack broken windows. The agree that New York City police precinct data show a dramatic reduction of crime in high-crime precincts, but they attribute this to what they call ”Newton’s Law of Crime: what goes up, must come down (and what goes up the most, tends to come down the most).” Harcourt and Ludwig cite criminologists who say the rise and fall of crime rates in the ’80s and ’90s are a result not of a new type of policing, but of the crack epidemic. When crack first hit the market in the 1980s, it was a lucrative business to be in (and worth the fight for turf), but as it became more available, the price dropped dramatically, making dealers think twice about risking their lives to make ever-lower profits, and reducing the incidence of violent crime. Harcourt and Ludwig say a Department of Housing and Urban Development program suggest that neighborhood disorder has no effect on criminality. Public housing tenants were moved from inner-city projects to safer, more orderly neighborhoods. Contrary to what broken windows suggests, the relocated tenants continued to offend at the same rates in their new, more orderly neighborhoods as they did in their disorderly ones.