Ever since America's earliest days, anyone causing a public nuisance with disruptive behavior could end up in jail. But now that kind of minor policing has taken on a modern major meaning.
In the past decade, many police departments have adopted a new theory that says serious crime can be reduced by controlling minor disorders and fixing up obvious signs of decay, such as broken windows or litter.
This "broken window" thesis rests on the idea that potential criminals can read the signals on whether a community cares about itself by preventing even small antisocial acts.
The theory's biggest test has been in New York City, where a dramatic decline in crime has been attributed in large part to "order maintenance." Rundown parts of the city have been cleaned up, and police focus more on such problems as panhandling, turnstile jumping, and public drinking. Police have even cracked down on people who clean the windshields of cars at stoplights with squeegees.
But proving this theory has been difficult for some scholars, who credit a better economy and fewer young people for reducing the crime rate more. And doubts have been raised about some police being too zealous in keeping troublemakers off the street.
Still "broken windows" enforcement has won a proper place among trends in criminal-justice reform. If there's any problem with it, it lies in emphasis and allocating resources.
It should not, for instance, divert attention from deeper causes of crime, such as poor family life and bad schools, which can lead people to believe that committing a crime is an answer to their problems.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society