Briefing Report: California Realignment and Community Policing

Breaking Fixed Windows
Wednesday, March 28, 2012

“Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)”
- James Q. Wilson

Thinking about Crime

On March 2, 2012, James Q. Wilson, a well-known conservative social scientist and long-time California resident passed away from complications stemming from leukemia. A prolific author, Mr. Wilson was often interviewed and praised for his works, including 18 published books ranging from a study of coral reefs to the collapse of the traditional American family. Yet, he was best known for his research in the criminal justice field, in particular his work on order maintenance and individual behavior. His theories in these areas revolutionized criminal justice policy and later became the foundation for community policing models throughout the United States.

Wilson rationally approached the problem of addressing crime by directly studying police and criminal conduct. He was a strong advocate of the idea that individuals make a rational choice to commit crime based on their assessment of the risks and rewards. In turn, government could therefore lower crime by increasing the probability that a criminal would be caught and punished. Even if no criminal paid any heed to the risks, crime could still be reduced by separating offenders from the general population.

While they may seem commonplace in today’s public policy debates, the ideas of “deterrence” and “incapacitation” were somewhat unconventional when Wilson first wrote about them in the 1970’s. At the time, the focus of crime prevention for many academics and practitioners were social programs and the identification and mitigation of the “root causes of crime.” Instead, Wilson contended that government should fight crime and maintain community order directly through the use of police resources and “swift and certain” sanctions.

In 1982, Wilson further explored the use of police resources and community order in what would arguably be his most famous writing: “The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” an article in The Atlantic magazine coauthored by Manhattan Institute fellow George Kelling, who would expand upon the theory.

In concept, the idea behind the original article was simple: It used an analogy to describe the relationship between community disorder and increasing crime. As Wilson later explained it,

“We used the image of broken windows to explain how neighborhoods might decay into disorder and even crime if no one attends faithfully to their maintenance. If a factory or office window is broken, passersby observing it will conclude that no one cares or no one is in charge. In time, a few will begin throwing rocks to break more windows. Soon all the windows will be broken, and now passersby will think that, not only is no one in charge of the building, no one is in charge of the street on which it faces. Only the young, the criminal, or the foolhardy have any business on an unprotected avenue and so more and more citizens will abandon the street to those they assume prowl it. Small disorders lead to larger and larger ones, and perhaps even to crime.”[1]

Essentially, disorderly behavior causes fear, uncertainty, and eventually breaks down social control within affected communities, thus leaving them vulnerable to additional disorder and potentially more serious criminal activity. The analogy led to the essay and theory being referred to as “broken windows.”

This theory would profoundly impact public policy makers and police officials. Law enforcement agencies throughout the United States would subsequently use these concepts to develop many of the successful community policing models currently in use today.

California’s Criminal Justice System

Looking back at the work of James Q. Wilson is more than just a fond remembrance.  Given the arguable success over the past 20 years of his and other similar policies, this should be a cautionary tale for California. The state has recently embarked on an unprecedented change in its criminal justice system which in some ways is contrary to the principals of these philosophies. Undoubtedly realignment will have a negative effect on California communities in the short term as it will reduce both police presence and disincentives to commit crime.

Conservative estimates suggest that the California 2011 Criminal Justice Realignment plan will shift more than 55,000 felons from the state to local governments by 2013-2014.  At the same time the California State Association of Counties noted in 2010 that 32 county jails were operating under a court ordered or self-imposed population cap due to space limitations. As a result, approximately 200,000 offenders were already being released early from their jail sentences each year.[2] Now those same county jails will be forced to deal with felons who would have served time in state prison. Ultimately, this means that there will be a significant increase in early releases at the local level and that police will be concerned not with disorder in the community but with monitoring individuals who should be incapacitated in state prison.

Even for those who dispute the effectiveness of community policing and incentive based models, this trend should be somewhat concerning. Based on their use, there is little doubt that community policing strategies at least improve community conditions and relationships between residents and the police. In addition, history and the crime rate over the past few decades would appear to provide a prima facie case for the effectiveness of prisons, incapacitation, and deterrence in effectively reducing criminal activity. Research suggests that incarceration accounted for somewhere between 20 to 40 percent of the reduction in crime between 1992 and 1997.[3] Thus, as the state shifts resources away from criminal justice programs, shortens sentences, and releases more serious, repeat offenders into the community, one can expect that local communities will experience an increase in crime. These concerns are heightened by the fact that this enormous shift was imposed in the span of less than a single year and did not provide local governments with the time, resources, or opportunity to prepare by hiring additional peace officers, developing alternatives to incarceration, or even simply constructing jail facilities to hold offenders until they could adequately prepare.

Many proponents will claim that these changes were necessary to reduce costs and to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata[4]. However, it is important to note that the 2011 Criminal Justice Realignment plan is not the same population reduction plan on which the 9th Circuit Three-Judge Panel based its release order. It was also proposed by the Governor prior to the Supreme Court decision and as part of a larger shift of services to local governments. In fact, the criminal justice portion of realignment only comprises about 35 to 40 percent of the total service shift. This plan is actually a way to generate State General Fund savings of between $900 million and $2.2 billion by 2014-15 and not merely a response to the court order.

Looking Forward

What does this mean for California? We can’t definitively predict the future but what we do know is that local jurisdictions will have fewer resources, less jail space, and more responsibility for monitoring potentially dangerous inmates. This unequivocally means that there will be more crime in local communities. Instead of preventing “broken windows,” and the activities that erode communities and cause fear in residents, local police will now spend their time trying to prevent only the most serious crimes while watching so-called “low-level” felons. These are the same “low-level” felons who, prior to October of last year, were adjudged by local courts as individuals who required a prison sentence because they were too dangerous or problematic to remain in the community on felony probation. However, as usual, the state knows what is best for local communities.

For more information on this report or other public safety issues, contact Eric Csizmar, Senate Republican Office of Policy at 916/651-1501.


[1] George Kelling and Catherine Coles. Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities (Free Press, 1996)
[2] CSAC Governor’s proposed 2010-11 Budget. Counties Respond: Recipe for Chaos: Shift of Responsibility for Felons to County Jails.
[3] William Spelman, “What Recent Studies Do (and Don’t) Tell Us about Imprisonment and Crime” Crime and Justice 27 (2000)
[4] In Brown v. Plata the U.S. Supreme Court held that lower court did not err in concluding that overcrowding in California prisons was the primary cause of the continuing violations of prisoner’s constitutional rights to adequate health care. They further found that the evidence supported the conclusion of the three-judge panel that a population limit was necessary to remedy the overcrowding problem and that the relief ordered by the three-judge court the population limit was narrowly drawn, extended no further than necessary to correct the violation, and was the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation.