Broken Lives from Broken Windows: The Hidden Costs of Aggressive Order-Maintenance Policing

61 Pages Posted: 18 May 2010 Last revised: 6 Oct 2010

Date Written: 2009


In this article I demonstrate that the aggressive policing of misdemeanor and lesser offenses results in a number of consequences that may ultimately be criminogenic. These effects can roughly be broken down into two categories: economic burdens and legitimacy costs. I conclude that while the impact of aggressive policing of minor offenses on crime rates requires more study, the costs associated with policing order via the criminal justice system are so great that immediate steps must be taken to reduce them.

Recently, scholars in the field of criminal justice have grappled with three major developments that have significantly changed the landscape of the criminal justice system. These developments are (1) increased policing of minor social disorder based on the Broken Windows theory, (2) insights based on social psychology in the area of procedural justice, and (3) the expansion of civil collateral consequences of convictions. This paper explores the interplay between these three developments. In the policing sphere, the Broken Windows theory – the theory that correcting visible signs of social disorder will reduce serious crime – has given rise to aggressive order-maintenance policing strategies in many jurisdictions. Such policing has drawn millions of individuals into the criminal justice system for minor offenses. Social psychologists have contemporaneously produced compelling evidence that perceptions and judgments about “procedural justice” – the fundamental fairness of a process – have a greater impact on willingness to comply with authority than favorable outcomes (e.g., light sentences or even dismissal in a criminal case). Finally, scholars, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys have written with concern about *272 civil collateral consequences that often outweigh and outlast underlying criminal convictions.

This article examines these three developments. Using New York City as a case study, I assess the panoply of aggressive order-maintenance policing costs in light of both procedural justice costs and the collateral consequences. I reach two conclusions. First, aggressive order-maintenance policing likely exerts criminogenic pressure on the targets of aggressive policing and the neighborhoods from which they come. Second, many of the unintended and undesirable costs of aggressive order-maintenance policing can be mitigated or eliminated without abandoning a commitment to order maintenance.

Keywords: Policing, Legitimacy Costs, Economic, Burdens, Theory, Minor Offenses, Procedure, Zero Tolerance

Suggested Citation

Howell, Babe, Broken Lives from Broken Windows: The Hidden Costs of Aggressive Order-Maintenance Policing (2009). New York University Review of Law & Social Change, Vol. 33, p. 271, 2009, Available at SSRN:

Babe Howell (Contact Author)

CUNY School of Law ( email )

2 Court Square
Long Island City, NY 11101
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics