Crime and Punishment
The End of Broken Windows?

Regular readers know that we think New York City’s economy and quality of life would be well-served by the elimination of superfluous regulations—but this, via Bloomberg News, is not what we had in mind:

Urinating and drinking in public would no longer be treated as crimes under a package of bills New York’s City Council will consider to ease enforcement of quality-of-life offenses that lawmakers say clog the courts and have been disproportionately enforced against minorities.

The council scheduled a Jan. 25 hearing on the proposed laws, which are supported by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a majority of her 50 colleagues and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. The proposal would remove the possibility of permanent criminal records for public urination and violating park rules, mostly treating them as civil offenses, along with public drinking, littering and excessive noise.

Perhaps the City Council should be thinking about making it easier for New Yorkers to start a business before it makes it easier for them to do their business on the street.

Silliness aside, there are real risks involved with the kind of policy change the Council is considering, especially in a year when many cities around the country have seen a spike in violent crime rates. If enacted, the measures would amount to a partial rollback of “broken windows” policy, which is the idea that police departments should aggressively enforce “quality-of-life offenses,” like public urination, on the grounds that public disorder foments more serious criminal activity. There is, however, evidence that these policies have worked over the past quarter-century.

The New York Times editorial board supports the measures because they could “ease the burden of overpolicing in communities of color.” Maybe—but police reformers shouldn’t get ahead of themselves. Broken windows policies made America’s cities much more livable, and probably had a substantial impact on crime rates. If crime rates aren’t falling—or at least stable—the demand for “overpolicing” could come back with a vengeance.

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