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The "Broken Windows" Theory and Community Supervision:

Public Safety is Sometimes a Matter of Appearance

By Joyce McGinnis, Office of Legislative, Intergovernmental and Public Affairs (CSOSA Newslink, August 2003)

As CSOSA prepares to unveil its second Strategic Plan, which is currently under review at the Office of Management and Budget, we should pause to remember the literature and statistics that support what we do. Our supervision practices are rooted in the rich soil of criminal justice scholarship.

One of the most influential theories in recent criminal justice literature is that of "broken windows." This theory, originally introduced in 1969, has been the subject of heated debate in all areas of law enforcement. In an article in the Atlantic Monthly, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling discussed a study of foot-patrol policing in Newark, New Jersey. Interestingly, although the presence or absence of officers on foot patrol did not influence crime rates in the city's neighborhoods, citizens perceived they were safer—and that crime was lower—if they saw a cop on the beat. Wilson and Kelling argued that the perception of safety was in fact the result of the police officers performing an important function. Foot-patrol officers maintained a "surface" order in their neighborhoods. They silenced boisterous teenagers, moved loiterers along, and noted unusual activity. They provided a visible law enforcement presence. Because residents felt that presence, they were more likely to enforce the neighborhood's "rules" themselves.

The authors also discussed an experiment performed with an abandoned car. If the car was placed on a street in the Bronx, it was stripped of all useful parts and destroyed within hours. In quieter, more affluent Palo Alto, California, the car was not ransacked unless it appeared to be damaged. After the study's authors smashed one window with a sledgehammer, passersby viewed the car as "disposable" and soon joined in the destructive fun.

Wilson and Kelling summarized their views as follows:

Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding...We suggest that "untended" behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls. A stable neighborhood ... can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle.

This theory had a significant impact on all aspects of law enforcement that touch the community. The "community policing" and "restorative justice" movements can be traced to this theory. Community involvement, partnership with law enforcement officers, and the idea that offenders should make amends with the community are all linked to the idea that visible involvement brings visible results. If people appear to care, then potential criminals will believe that they do care—and will respect their rights and their property.

By the close of the 1990s, public policymakers began to examine the applicability of the "broken windows" model to community supervision. A group of practitioners and policymakers convened as the Reinventing Probation Council in 1998. Their report, "Transforming Probation Through Leadership: The 'Broken Windows' Model" appeared in August 1999. Both the report and subsequent commentary on it have influenced CSOSA's approach to community supervision.

The "broken windows" model of probation maintains that the primary "product" of community supervision is not services delivered to those under supervision, but public safety for the entire community. The authors argued that public confidence in community supervision had eroded significantly, and that to rebuild it, administrators and policymakers must adopt an approach that redefines the "customer" of community supervision to encompass all citizens—offenders, victims, and ordinary individuals. To that end, the authors articulated seven principles through which community supervision can be "reinvented":

  1. Place public safety first;
  2. Supervise probationers in the neighborhood, not the office;
  3. Rationally allocate resources;
  4. Provide for strong enforcement of probation conditions and a quick response to violations;
  5. Develop partners in the community;
  6. Establish performance-based initiatives; and
  7. Cultivate strong leadership.

CSOSA has incorporated these principles into its program model. Our approach to community supervision is grounded in the idea that public safety is our most important outcome. Moreover, our Community Supervision Officers work in the community to maintain a visible law enforcement presence and contribute to public order.

While the "broken windows" model is a compelling statement of the public's stake in effective community supervision, it does not address the significant needs and deficits that impede offenders' desire to change. The offenders under CSOSA's supervision must overcome significant functional deficits, poor work histories, and overwhelming drug addiction to establish a viable, crime-free lifestyle. A comprehensive community corrections system that ignores these needs and focuses solely on enforcement does little to increase public safety or public confidence.

Faye Taxman of the University of Maryland and James Byrne of the University of Massachusetts articulated this deficiency in a 2001 article, "Fixing 'Broken Windows' Probation." Taxman and Byrne argued that treatment is an essential component of a successful, truly comprehensive community corrections strategy. They wrote:

Our review of the research ... reveals that it is offender improvement in the areas of employment, substance abuse, personal and family problems that is directly related to recidivism reduction. At its core, offender change in these areas is precisely what probation officers should focus on during supervision.

In developing its supervision model, CSOSA recognized that the principles articulated in the "broken windows" model need not be viewed as conflicting with the provision of treatment and other support programming. On the contrary, the external control exercised through close supervision, meaningful sanctions, and surveillance drug testing can complement the offender's participation in support programs. If the principles of "broken windows" are aimed at establishing a system of external accountability—the offender is watched and is punished when non-compliance is detected—treatment and other programming are intended to establish a system of internal accountability. Through success in treatment, education, job training, and other experiences, the offender learns that change is possible and desirable. He or she develops the desire to behave differently.

CSOSA's supervision model adapts an influential theory to the realities of our population. It is a unique blend of accountability to the community and opportunity for the individual. Our success will therefore benefit both the public we serve and the offenders we supervise.

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