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Broken Window Theory In Criminology

In criminology, the broken window theory is often used to describe how bringing order into society can help to reduce crime. The broken window theory supports the claim that when there is disorder in the society, especially among the urban populace, such a society is also highly prone to increased cases of vandalism, anti-social behavior, and crime. As such, the theory holds that by assessing and upholding the urban environment in an orderly manner, we are likely to put a stop to acts of vandalism, and also to reduce an increase in the rate of more serious crimes. Since its introduction by social scientists George Kelling and James Wilson in an article that they wrote jointly in 1982, the theory has attracted a lot of heated debates not just in the social sciences circle, but also in the public sphere as well. In addition, the theory has proved quite motivational to a number of reforms in the development of criminal policy.

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According to the broken window theory, the nature of the urban environment can impact on crime owing to a number of factors. To start with, the urban environment affects social norms and the way society conforms to such social norms. As such, if the urban environment does not uphold the need to observe social norms, this may drive society into committing crimes. The other factor is the availability (or lack of) periodic monitoring, while the third factor is signal crime and social signaling.

An anonymous urban environment is less likely to have clearly defined social norms, while monitoring is almost non-existence. Therefore, individuals will always try to look for signals in such an environment and the likely risks in case they are caught trying to break the norms. An important signal of an urban environment, and which can affect the rate of crime is the general appearance of the environment. With respect to the broken window theory, a clean and orderly environment (implying that there is monitoring, and hence the maintenance) sends out signals to would-be criminals that they are being closely monitored. Accordingly, the would-be criminals get the message that the area in question would not tolerate criminal behavior.

On the other hand, if the environment is in a state or disorganized (as evidenced by broken windows, excessive litter, and graffiti) this acts as a sign to potential criminals that there is no close monitoring in the area. As such, even if these individuals decided to engage in criminal behavior, the risk of getting caught is very minimal, because the environment favors them.

Some cities have applied the broken window theory in a bid to wipe out crime rates successfully. For example, when former Mayor of New York, Rudi Giuliani was elected into office, the city of New York had one of the highest crime rates in the world. In 2001, Giuliani declared zero tolerance on crime. Implementing the strategy meant that the city authorities had to initiate wider reforms to fight crime. Part of the reforms involved stricter enforcement of laws by the police. The police helped to enforce the law against such crimes as public drinking, subway fare invasion, and urination. Most of the graffiti was also wiped out. As a result of these reforms, the city of New York witnessed a drastic drop in crime rate for a period of 10 years.

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