Breaking Up with the Broken Windows Theory

Putting a lens on criminal justice reform to help end racial profiling
February 12, 2019 AT 11:00 AM
By Lisa Wong  |  Senior Fellow, Governing Institute
Lisa Wong is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.

Rachael Rollins’ campaign for district attorney in the county representing Boston has drawn both praise and criticism -- particularly her focus on criminal justice reform to reduce recidivism and find alternatives to jail time. She was interviewed on the Fox News Channel by talk show host Tucker Carlson and even got a shout out from former President Barack Obama in a recent speech at the University of Illinois. Rollins frequently discussed decreasing and even eliminating prosecution of lower-level, non-violent crimes such as shoplifting or dealing small amounts of drugs. Time and further data are needed to know whether this approach will work in Boston.

While still controversial, Rollins’ take on criminal justice reform is an attempt to fight the racial injustice issues that stem from the Broken Windows Theory, which has been popularized in the past few decades as a way to reduce crime and improve quality of life. The idea is that by tackling relatively smaller issues such as graffiti, vandalism and even broken windows quickly, it sends a positive message to the neighborhood and can prevent more serious issues that a blighted or neglected area can more likely attract.

Critics of the Broken Windows Theory argue that this type of policing or community development unfairly targets minorities and exacerbates racial profiling. New York City Police Department's "Stop and Frisk" policy is one of the most well-known examples of implementing the theory. Police would stop and search civilians on the street, purportedly as a way to intercept illegal activity and prevent more serious crimes. Information compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union shows that more than half of people detained were black and almost a third were Latino.

The Stop and Frisk policy has since ended but the consequences remain. Several studies have shown no correlation between the policy and reduction in crime. A vast majority of those detained were shown to not have done anything wrong, and whites stopped were more likely to have broken the law relating to weapons and drugs. In short, the Stop and Frisk era probably contributed to mistrust between the police and the community, and is a part of the trauma from which many communities still have to heal.

Back in Boston, the police department has also been criticized for using the Stop and Frisk method. However, Rollins was overwhelming elected with 80 percent of the vote -- along with a new police commissioner – which could signal a sea change toward more effective criminal justice policies that will hopefully have a ripple effect throughout the country.