Mar. 20, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 12

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    Law professor Harcourt challenges popular policing method, gun violence interventions

    By Peter Schuler
    News Office

    Bernard Harcourt, Professor in the Law School, does not believe in simplistic formulas to “fix” the problem of crime. He does believe broader questions and more in-depth discussions about gun violence, punishment and criminal justice are critical to stabilizing the lives of American citizens and the neighborhoods where they live.

    Harcourt draws on criminal law and procedure, police and punishment practices, political and social theory, and criminology to seek answers and solutions to crime. He has challenged the validity of an accepted policing method called “broken windows” and has found that public policy interventions used to decrease youth gun violence have had troublesome repercussions.

    Harcourt, who earned a doctorate in political theory at Harvard University in addition to his J.D., is the author of Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing, a critique of a popular theory of crime prevention known as “broken windows” or “order maintenance.” He also has recently edited the forthcoming book Guns, Crime, and Punishment in America, which includes cutting-edge research presented by a range of authorities on guns and gun violence.

    In 1982, social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling introduced the “broken windows” theory. They argued that if police targeted minor crimes of disorder, that would help prevent more serious crimes. Broken windows or stumbling drunks in a neighborhood, the theory postulates, push law-abiding citizens to withdraw from the streets, which then sends a signal that lawbreakers can operate freely. The Chicago and New York police departments, among many others, enthusiastically adopted “broken windows” policies, which included Chicago’s enactment of an antigang loitering ordinance.

    In his research on broken windows policing, Harcourt employed detailed statistical analysis to demonstrate that there is, in fact, no measurable link between neighborhood disorder and the incidence of crime, and that broken windows policing results in numerous negative consequences.

    “An emphasis on misdemeanors may seem an appealing alternative to incarceration, but the outcome has often been repressive and costly,” Harcourt said. “A disproportionate number of minorities have been arrested, and police misconduct complaints have increased as stops, frisks and arrests for minor crimes have multiplied.”

    In Illusion of Order, Harcourt urged that much broader questions about punishment and criminal justice be asked rather than questioning whether strategies like broken windows policing do or do not work. “We need to ask how these methods for policing disorder shape our citizens, our civic culture and our social relations. Rather than viewing disorder as the cause of crime, perhaps we need to reexamine connections between crime and neighborhood poverty and stability. What is the relationship between order maintenance and our treatment of the unemployed? How will curfews and antiloitering ordinances affect our children’s intellectual and cultural development?”

    In similar fashion, laws and policy measures that have been implemented to curb youth gun violence have had negative effects, said Harcourt, and also require a different way of viewing the problem.

    Harcourt hopes Guns, Crime, and Punishment in America, which will be released this spring, will enhance understanding of policy alternatives and help promote dialogue between the various approaches to guns and gun violence. His own article about attitudes toward guns in an all-boy correctional facility in Tucson, Ariz., where he conducted research, is among the book’s 18 essays.

    Harcourt said media coverage, political debate and public concern have resulted in “a staggering number and variety of public policy interventions to reduce the availability of firearms to potential gun offenders and youths.” He said these intervention measures have had wide-ranging repercussions in the criminal justice system and throughout society.

    “They have redrawn traditional lines between federal and state enforcement of traditional police powers, reconfigured the ways that law enforcement agencies think about gun violence and fractured communities with charges of police racial profiling,” Harcourt said. He noted that the proliferation of laws and policies has challenged traditional notions of gun ownership and virtually dismantled the juvenile courts in many jurisdictions.

    “The great American gun debates are presently set in two extreme positions, for and against gun control measures, which obscures rather than clarifies. To move the conversation forward, it is essential that we focus on more nuanced and subtle discussion of particular policy interventions and the relationships among the different approaches. The overarching goal must be to link the policy research in order to promote more concrete and less-polarized thinking about guns,” he concluded.