In an 1982 issue of The Atlantic George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson published an article entitled, Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety. In an age where police officials and politicians turned their focus to minor offenses and quality-of-life issues, Wilson and Kelling’s seminal Broken Windows thesis became widely accepted as the solution to combat petty crime. Simply put, Wilson and Kelling stressed the importance of controlling minor crime to discourage more violent and serious criminal behavior. In order to foster the creation of "safe and clean neighborhoods," police were widely encouraged to implement zero-tolerance policies, in which increasingly aggressive law enforcement strategies were implemented to keep petty crime off the streets. In many ways, a "broken window" was made to be the symbol for property negligence and zero-tolerance policies were primarily intended to send a clear message to criminal actors that neglected and crumbling parts of cities would no longer be tolerated as breeding grounds for crime.
A majority of Americans experience the US criminal justice system through the petty offense system. With misdemeanors making up 80% of state court filings, petty crimes such as jaywalking, loitering, and public urination are a serious source of over-criminalization in the United States. (These being distinguished from more dangerous, or lethal crimes that lead to felony convictions.) Beyond overwhelming our judicial system, burdening public defenders with hundreds of thousands of minor cases, elevated cases of misdemeanors lead to unnecessary and potentially dangerous police interactions. Though complicated, the decriminalization of these small, victimless crimes can limit the reasons why an officer might instigate a potentially violent altercation, fostering more just and growth focused communities.
It’s important to note that decriminalization does not equate to the legalization of minor crimes. Rather, decriminalization is the reduction of penalties for conduct that remains illegal or highly restricted by lessening the long-term punitive impact of the criminal justice system. This is primarily facilitated through the substitution of penalties such as incarceration in favor of more fitting consequences such as fines, simple citations, and probation.
Proponents of the Broken Windows theory argued that crackdowns on minor crimes would catalyze a major decrease in more serious offenses. In a situation where any given individual may be deemed suspicious, an arrest for a minor crime might lead officers to discover illegal contraband, weapons, or an outstanding warrant for another crime. Data collected by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) during the 1990s serves as the most comprehensive test case for this theory. After adopting zero-tolerance policies in 1993, the NYPD began making arrests and issuing citations for minor crimes. During this period of time, crime rates in New York City plummeted, with murder rates reaching a 30-year low in 1997. However, parallel downward trends of criminal activity were occurring in other cities that had not adopted zero-tolerance policies. This suggests that crime rates are only correlated with, not caused by, Broken Windows Policing policies.
Data from the NYPD also serves as a test case for the harms associated with increased policing of minor offenses.Following the implementation of zero-tolerance policing in 1993, formal police misconduct cases and reports of excessive violence to the NYPD skyrocketed. Though some serious crimes and high-profile cases were solved as a result of increased questioning and misdemeanor arrests, a vast majority of police stops had no significant results. Out of 250,000 police stops in New York in 2008, only .0006% resulted in the discovery of illicit contraband or a weapon. These results mirror national arrest data; as of 2018, only 5% of all arrests in the U.S. involve alleged violent crime.
While a large majority of arrests are for petty crime and non-violent activity, increased police encounters due to Broken Windows Policing often result in an escalation to deadly force. In 2014 alone, police killed approximately 287 people in the United States for small-time offenses or harmless activities such as minor drug possession, sleeping in parks, or generalized "suspicious behavior." These non-violent activities, which in 2018 made up 95% of arrests, rarely threaten public safety and can frequently result in unnecessary escalation and use of force by authorities. Decriminalizing these activities would curtail otherwise dangerous police encounters.
One such example of a deadly encounter for a misdemeanor offense was the case of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man killed by Minneapolis police in April 2021 after he was pulled over for driving with expired plates and hanging an air freshener on his rearview mirror.
Decriminalization is a complex process. In many cases, widespread change may require a state to state approach and the creation of separate civil administrative systems entirely. Nevertheless, decriminalization programs have had promising results. One county in Washington state reduced criminal case filings by 84% just by diverting people with suspended licenses out of the criminal system into payment programs or community service projects. This decriminalization has ripple effects. In this case, impoverished drivers are less likely to have a criminal record that would count against them if pulled over during a police stop.
In adopting a system free of arrests or jail time as a result of small infractions, the U.S. judicial system would be taking a large step toward decreasing the elevated number of police-citizen interactions perpetuated by the current American system. Arrests for minor offenses and infractions often lead to excessive jail time, incidental fees, and immense pressure to plead guilty regardless of innocence. Furthermore, data suggests a weak causal relationship between increased frequency of arrests for non-violent crime and municipal crime rates. The data does suggest that policing of these types of crime leads to violent, sometimes fatal, encounters between police officers and members of the community.
Above all, decriminalization can serve as a powerful opportunity to redefine the expectations of policing, allowing Americans to reassess what crimes truly require officer intervention.
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