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  Program Introduction

  Closing of the Frontier
  Scientific Racism
  The Children's Bureau
  Recent Social Trends

  The Great Depression
  The Gallup Poll
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  The Feminine Mystique
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  Broken Windows
  Middletown IV
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FMC Program Segments 1960-2000

Crime, Broken Windows, 
and James Q. Wilson


Atlantic magazine BEN WATTENBERG: During the 1960s, decline and decay intensified in many cities. A series of urban riots put an exclamation point on a general feeling of disorder. Many streets and parks became threatening places. Americans - whites and blacks - fled the inner city for the suburbs. Between 1950 and 1990, Chicago lost 23 percent of its population; Washington, 24 percent; Detroit, 44 percent; Cleveland, 45 percent; St. Louis lost 54 percent of its population. And all this happened while the total American population was growing by 64 percent. 

Surveying this urban landscape, California-born political scientist James Q. Wilson focused his attention on the effects of crime. Wilson received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1959 and later taught at Harvard and UCLA.

JAMES Q. WILSON: Between 1963 and the early 1970s, the rate of violent crime more or less tripled in the United States. By violent crime, I mean murder, manslaughter and robbery. So we had a tripling of the crime rate at a time when the country was, by and large, prosperous, in which the unemployment rates even among African-American adolescents was quite low. 

BEN WATTENBERG: It was getting harder to arrest, prosecute, convict and incarcerate criminals. Remarkably, even though crime was up, the number of people being sent to prison went down by 12 percent between 1960 and 1970. Americans were outraged and wanted solutions. 

JAMES Q. WILSON: One of the things we looked at is whether, if the probability of going to prison for a crime is higher in one state than another state, will the crime rate in the state where the probability of prison is higher be less than the crime rate in the state where the probability of prison is lower, other things being equal. And we learned that the answer seemed to be yes. 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: I think James Q. Wilson's biggest impact on the study of crime was to make the argument that it was legitimate and appropriate to think about punishing criminals. Among academics, the emphasis had for a long, long time been very heavily on trying to either deter crime, on the one hand, and to rehabilitate criminals so that they wouldn't commit more crimes, on the other hand. 

BEN WATTENBERG: Jim Wilson made the scholarly case for what most people sensed: Putting more criminals in jail will lower the crime rate. Over time, the climate of opinion changed. Politicians began passing tougher laws. Judges handed out longer sentences. The prison population climbed dramatically. Crime rates declined, dropping more than 30 percent during the 1990s. It's a blessing with a down side. 

ELLIOTT CURRIE (Author, Crime & Punishment in America ): You can't take as many people, particularly young men, and increasingly young women, as we have taken them from some communities in our society, particularly urban communities, particularly inner-city communities, you can't put that many people in prison for that long without having dramatic impacts on the whole way of life in those cities and on the way in which children are raised, for example, or not raised. 

BEN WATTENBERG: Still, increased incarceration keeps thugs off the street. The good economy and new drug rehab programs also cut crime. And Jim Wilson had another good idea. 

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: James Q. Wilson and George Kelling developed this argument called the broken windows theory, which was that if you go into a neighborhood and you see a lot of broken windows, it tells you that nobody around here cares, that nobody's looking out for the neighborhood, that if you go break some more windows, nobody's going to do anything about it, and in some broader sense, anything goes. 

JAMES Q. WILSON: It's the level of disorder that counts as much as crime. And therefore, we urge the police to pay as much attention to public order, the elimination of public disorder, by getting rid of prostitutes and gangs on street corners, by painting out the graffiti, by making people feel comfortable around their homes, that this would do a lot for people, and possibly -- this was the theory -- actually drive down the crime rate. 

BEN WATTENBERG: Police departments across the country adopted the broken windows theory. The most famous example: New York City. Subways, city parks and other public spaces were no longer places to avoid. Crime rates declined. Most strikingly, the city's homicide rate dropped like a stone. 

JAMES Q. WILSON: As it's later turned out, the research that has been done so far suggests that if you do these things, in fact, the crime rate does come down, because good people are on the streets and bad people find it hard to take advantage of them. The ability to measure the crime rate permits you to test theories, to test competing arguments, to see who is correct.

     Photo Credits:
   Atlantic Magazine cover. Courtesy of The Atlantic.

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