James Q.Wilson | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee


Course: Introduction / Policing

James Q. Wilson is an American political scientist that wrote extensively on criminal justice issues, perhaps most famous for developing Broken Windows Theory.

James Q. Wilson was a highly influential American political scientist who contributed significantly to the field of criminal justice through his research, writings, and development of the Broken Windows Theory, which emphasizes the importance of addressing small crimes to prevent larger ones and maintain order in communities.

Born in 1931, Wilson attended the University of Redlands, where he earned a degree in political science before going on to receive his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Over the course of his career, he taught at various universities, including Harvard, UCLA, and Pepperdine, and authored numerous books and articles on topics related to crime, policing, and government.

One of Wilson’s most notable contributions to the field of criminal justice was his work on the Broken Windows Theory, which he developed with criminologist George Kelling. The theory, first introduced in a 1982 article in The Atlantic Monthly, argues that visible signs of disorder, such as broken windows, abandoned buildings, and litter, can lead to an increase in more serious crimes if left unaddressed. The theory suggests that by cracking down on minor offenses, such as vandalism or public drinking, law enforcement can prevent more serious crimes from occurring and improve the overall quality of life in a community.

Wilson’s work on the Broken Windows Theory had a significant impact on law enforcement policies and practices, particularly in New York City, where police commissioner William Bratton adopted the theory as a central tenet of his crime-fighting strategy in the 1990s.

The strategy involved cracking down on low-level offenses, such as fare evasion and public drinking, in an effort to reduce more serious crimes. While the strategy was controversial, with some arguing that it unfairly targeted low-income and minority communities, it was also credited with helping to reduce crime rates in the city during Bratton’s tenure.

In addition to his work on the Broken Windows Theory, Wilson also conducted extensive research on other criminal justice issues, including policing, crime prevention, and public opinion on criminal justice matters. He was a strong advocate for evidence-based policies and emphasized the importance of rigorous research and data analysis in shaping criminal justice practices.

Overall, James Q. Wilson’s contributions to the field of criminal justice were significant and far-reaching, and his legacy continues to shape the way that we approach crime and law enforcement in the United States.

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Last Modified: 04/10/2023


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