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Broken Windows Theory in Criminal Sociology

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Criminal Sociology, commonly referred to as sociology of crime relates to the study of the making, breaking as well as enforcing criminal laws. As such, the sole aim of criminal sociology is to critically understand and empirically develop while testing the several proposed theories explaining criminal behavior, the formation of enforcement laws and the operations of the criminal justice systems existing in different countries. Modern criminology is rooted and grounded on the basic principles that had been proposed in the writings of philosophers examining coexistence within the society. Of interest then was the reasons behind those who wanted more and were influential in the community took from the less powerful members of the community. As such, the question under examination during those formative years focused on how possible it was for the members of society to live together. Today, criminologists are concerned with coming up with answers to answer the same fundamental question of harmonious coexistence within the community. The Broken Windows theory is a criminological theory that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including serious felonies. The theory suggests that policing methods that target minor offenses such as vandalism, public drinking, and fare evasion help to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes. This research essay is aimed at discussing why the broken windows theory is best suited in offering explanations as to why individuals commit crimes. Further, the researcher seeks to highlight the possible faults and flaws in the theory as well as how the approach can be applied in understanding societal criminal behavior.

Breaking down the Broken Windows Theory

A theory is a system of ideas with the intentions of explaining something based on general principles independent of what is being examined. Therefore, it is of importance to note that theories generally have assumptions, suppositions and accepted facts geared towards providing rational explanations of the cause-and-effect relationships among a group of the observed phenomenon. Broken Windows as a theory was developed by sociologists James Wilson and George Kelling in the 1980s. It states that “when low-level crimes like vandalism (e.g., breaking windows of cars and buildings) are ignored, larger and more serious crimes start to happen soon.” For example, within the community, when a window is left unrepaired, chances are high that it may lead to the breaking of the rest of the windows. As such, sociologists explain that window breaking does not necessarily occur due to a given area being inhabited by gangs and criminals. However, one unrepaired window signals no one cares, therefore attracting more windows that can be broken into. The above theory after being tested, brought forth a new norm of behavior in the community closely linked to criminal and anti-social behaviors leading to people adjusting their normal behaviors accordingly. A decrease in the level of normalcy sets in a vicious cycle in motion gradually causing a neighborhood to become more run-down and dangerous.

Another example of how the broken window theory can be applied in society is that of a person smoking cigarettes. If an individual is smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk that appears relatively clean, the chances are high that they will keep the filter until when they will find a trash can and dispose of it. However, if in any case the street is littered with cigarettes filters all over the ground, there will be no effort whatsoever to try and find a trash can. As such, the smoker will throw the filter on the ground with others assuming that the area is already littered and there is no significant difference that the filter of the single cigarette will make. Simply put, what the theory suggests is that “if in a building a broken window is not fixed soon, immediately other windows will end up being destroyed by vandals. Why? Because the message that is being transmitted is: here, nobody cares about this; it is abandoned.” Worth noting is the fact that the littering of streets with cigarette stubs is not a criminal offense in any way. However, the ethos can be compared to breaking windows of a building just because one of the windows is already broken and no one seems concerned in making it thus setting a new standard where such activities are highly tolerated.

In any community, a broken window signifies a physical symbol that the residents living within the given locality do not especially care about the environment and that low-level deviance is highly tolerated. Knowledge on the Broken Window Theory to a greater extent influenced policy-makers on both sides of the Atlantic and most famously in the New York in the 1990s. For example, in 1993, several policies were introduced globally based on the Broken Windows Theory with the sole purpose of emphasizing and addressing crimes that negatively affected the quality of life. Consequently, all kinds of petty crimes including but not limited to subway fare evasion, public drinking and urination and graffiti were dealt with harshly. In 2001, a study in criminal trends revealed that both petty and cruel crimes had significantly dropped after the implementation of the policies. Further, it was established that the levels of crimes considerably dropped for the next ten years. Adoption of a zero-tolerance policing where the criminal justice system took low-level crime as well as anti-social behaviors seriously led to a significant reduction in the levels of deviance.

Broken Window Theory in Practice

According to systematic research conducted by Braga, Welsh and Schnell in 2015, it was established that policing strategies focused on disorder overall had a significant and modest impact on reducing all types of crimes. The researchers concluded that such a positive result could have been attributed to the success of place-based as well as problem-oriented approaches applied by the policing authorities. On the contrary, the researchers contend that there was no significant overall impact of aggressive order-maintenance strategies. As such, according to the researchers, the police were strategically capable of reducing disorder and non-disorder crime through the application of disorder policing efforts. However, all the strategies as mentioned above matter. Further, according to the researchers, the broken window model as applied to policing is relatively difficult to evaluate for some several reasons.

First, the only place where the policy has been arguably successful is within New York. However, in other agencies globally, the theory has been considered as being synonymous with zero tolerance policing through which disorder is aggressively policed while all other violations are either ticketed or arrested. Additionally, the broken window approach is more nuanced than zero tolerance allows thus seemingly unfair to evaluate its effectiveness primarily basing on the efficacy of aggressive arrest-based approaches that have been widely used towards eliminating officer discretion. Conclusively, it may be argued that in the real sense, most, if not all police departments globally are not using broken window policy that they claim to be using.

Secondly, the other concern of adoption and application of the broken window policy is how to measure the broken windows treatment. Worth mentioning is the fact that the most frequent indicator of the theory has primarily been characterized with misdemeanor arrests, mainly because the data is readily available. However, in reality, arrests alone do not capture and represent an approach that can be used to describe explicitly community outreach and officer discretion. In most cases, officers are tasked with the responsibility of deciding whether an arrest is appropriate. As opposed to the zero-tolerance policy, there should be in place, more community-oriented approaches partnering with residents and communities to tackle disorder collectively in a way that significantly respects the civil rights and liberties of offenders. Finally, according to the model, there is a long term indirect link between disorder enforcement and a reduction in serious crime and so existing evaluations may not be appropriate in evaluating the broken windows interventions. Moreover, it has been established beyond responsible doubts that most policing studies use short-follow up periods and may fail to capture the ever dynamic and challenging neighborhoods.


For an extended period, it has been posited that the main advantage of the broken window theory is that it dramatically enables initiatives within the realm of criminal justice systems policy towards effecting change at the expense of relying solely on social policy. As such, the theory has been seen by many as a means of forcing change quickly and within minimal expense by merely altering crime control strategies by the police. Commonly, it is simple to attack disorder that it is to attack and eliminate social ills including but not limited to poverty and inadequate levels of literacy. However, while the theory may be quite useful in reducing crime, serious concerns have been raised and require immediate intervention for the effectiveness of the approach in practice. For example, it has been argued that the application of the theory in crime reduction comes at the expense of reduced citizen satisfaction and damage to citizen perceptions in line with the legitimacy of the police. Addressing the issue as raised above could make the theory the best in curbing and eliminating criminal activities at the community level.

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Broken Windows Theory in Criminal Sociology. (2020, October 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 12, 2022, from
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