Theories are, of course, the products of fertile imaginations.
Unless they’re tested out – directly or indirectly. Which is why I write again. This week brought the coincidental juxtaposition of two stories dealing – directly and indirectly – with the broken windows theory.
The first direct test of this theory comes from some enterprising researchers in the Netherlands. The theory
does not necessarily mean that people will copy bad behaviour exactly, reaching for a spray can when they see graffiti. Rather, says Dr Keizer, it can foster the “violation” of other norms of behaviour.
So the researchers set up an elaborate set of experiments, whereby they could observe if people were more likely to litter if there was graffiti on the walls or litter already on the ground. What they found was that when the alley contained graffiti, 69% of the riders littered compared with 33% when the walls were clean.
That’s not all. To test the central tenet of “broken windows” – that small crime begets big crime – the researchers set up an experiment to see if people would steal in an air of disorder:
The most dramatic result, though, was the one that showed a doubling in the number of people who were prepared to steal in a condition of disorder. In this case an envelope with a €5 ($6) note inside (and the note clearly visible through the address window) was left sticking out of a post box. In a condition of order, 13% of those passing took the envelope (instead of leaving it or pushing it into the box). But if the post box was covered in graffiti, 27% did. Even if the post box had no graffiti on it, but the area around it was littered with paper, orange peel, cigarette butts and empty cans, 25% still took the envelope.
To see the broken windows theory in action, we have to travel almost 6,000 miles to Hartford, CT, where the Community Court has been helping the community since 1998 [an interesting report written in 1999 by the Center for Court innovation which helped found the ComCourt]. This report details the origins of the community court and emphasizes its focus:
Given that the Hartford Community Court serves the entire City, it is designed to maintain close contact with representatives of each of the City’s 17 neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has a problem-solving committee that determines priorities for their communities, including crime and non-crime issues to be dealt with by the police, the Community Court, and other appropriate City departments (e.g., public works).
Which of course brings us back to the topic at hand:
Redefining Behavioral Norms & Expectations The Court is also attempting to influence behavioral norms about low-level nuisance offenses. Court planners were ambitious in lobbying for legislation that expanded the menu of sanctions available in municipal ordinance cases, sending the message that certain forms of disorderly behavior will not be tolerated.
10 years on, the Court seems to have been a success. The Courant has run a few pieces on the Court (calling it Judge Norko’s court – Judge Norko was the first judge and recently returned there) and on the impact of the court implementing the broken window theory.
Community court has made a difference to the city and undoubtedly to the defendants who pass through its doors on Washington Street. It does not yield drama worthy of “Law and Order.” It deals with misdemeanors that might otherwise be dismissed by the courts handling more serious crimes.
Judge Norko’s court metes out justice to loiterers, prostitutes, litterers, drunks, disturbers of the peace and other scofflaws who spoil the quality of neighborhood life.
The court was crowded recently with offenders waiting for their one- or two-day community service sentences. Once they complete the service hours, their records are wiped clean. For that reason, many people declined to give their names when talking about their experiences at the court. Others said they had been wrongfully arrested and planned to fight the charges — an option all defendants have at the court.
But for repeat offenders, the system aims to help them through whatever problems led them to offend in the first place. A drug addict might be led to addiction services; prostitutes can enroll in a specialized counseling program; petty thieves can apply for food stamps at the courthouse.
Kudos to the Court and kudos to Judge Norko. Perhaps Kelling was right. The theory might just work after all. It may be time for other cities and states to follow their lead and start dealing with the little problems that lead to big problems.
The Community Court is the one aspect of the criminal justice system that I am quite happy with. This addresses, on a small scale, the issues that I think are most important to improving law and order in a city: drug addiction and alcoholism. Those across the street in the regular criminal court are not that much different from the folks in community court; they just didn’t have the community court to help them back then.
The relevant question, obviously, is whether implementing a community court has done much for Hartford’s general crime. The answer depends on several factors, but the statistics are what they are: Since 1998, there has been a drop in violent crime (although it had been dropping pretty steadily since an all-time high in 1990). It’s possible that this drop in crime from 1990 onwards can be attributed to tougher sentencing or the elimination of indeterminate sentencing or an economic boom, but to the residents of Hartford, the community court has made an undeniable impact.
For more on the community court, you can read its newsletters here or see pictures from the 5th anniversary celebration here. For more general information, see here.
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