Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Disorder and the Courts

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Disorder and the Courts

Article excerpt

Fighting "serious" crime by lengthening prison sentences, banning some semi-automatic weapons, and putting more cops on the beat, as President Clinton's federal crime legislation provides, is all well and good. But the more common "crime" problem in many urban neighborhoods, observe Kelling, a professor of criminal justice at Boston's Northeastern University, and Coles, a cultural anthropologist, is disorderly behavior, such as panhandling, public drinking and drug use, prostitution, public urination and defecation, loitering, and defacing property with graffiti. "For most citizens, disorder is the crime problem," Kelling and Coles say. Unfortunately, they argue, the nation's courts frequently fail to grasp this.

Whatever the trend in crime statistics may be, Kelling and Coles say, the "in your face" experiences that citizens have every day on the streets "tell them that things are out of control and worsening." Just to prevent and clean up graffiti, municipalities spent $7 billion last year, Henderson reports in Governing. In many places, vandals have progressed from spray paint to etching, using everything from drill bits to diamond rings. "It is the fastest-growing class of graffiti, and authorities seem powerless to stop it," Henderson writes.

In 1982, Kelling and political scientist James Q. Wilson advanced the "broken windows" thesis: Just as an unrepaired broken window signals that no one cares and invites more broken windows, so unattended disorderly behavior leads to more disorder and, in all likelihood, serious crime. Recent research has buttressed the thesis. In Disorder and Decline (1990), Wesley Skogan, using data from 40 neighborhoods in six cities, found that disorder was the single most significant "precursor" of serious crime and urban decay.

There is other evidence that controlling disorder works to reduce crime. …

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