When researchers compiled data on women incarcerated within the United States in 1970, they concluded there were 8,000 women being held in jails. Just one-quarter of counties within the United States housed women in its jails. When researching women incarcerated in 2014, it was concluded there were almost 110,000 women in jails. They can be found in the jails of counties throughout the United States. It’s understandably hard to form a mental picture of 110,000 women in jail. That is 110,000 different personalities, 110,000 different faces, many of them mothers, ill, and survivors of trauma. I’m imagining an entire city of women to help put this in perspective. More men are involved in the justice system than women, but the population of women in correctional facilities is growing at a faster rate than that of men. The quick growth is fueled by the focus on policing disadvantaged communities and implementing harsh punishment to those who commit low-level crimes, also referred to as broken windows policing.
Broken windows policing was introduced to the public in 1982 by criminologist George Kelling, who has since admitted the practice is being misused by police. He believes without proper training, depending solely on police officers to maintain order will cause a negative effect on our communities. The broken windows theory claims that all crime begins with disorder and the way to prevent major crimes, like rape and murder, is to crack down on the smaller, pettier crimes first. To law enforcers and city officials, things such as abandoned cars and buildings, groups of people gathered outside and graffiti can be seen as disorder.
Disorder is split into two categories, physical and behavioral, and, classifying an area as disorderly has everything to do with image. Physical disorder is visual cues that are stereotypically synonymous with crime, the cues are the abandoned cars, graffiti, and litter I mentioned earlier. A person looking to commit a crime will view these community characteristics as a sign that getting caught is unlikely. Law enforcement will view them as a sign to heavily police the area- if there is physical disorder than behavioral disorder will follow.
The broken windows theory claims that physical disorder causes residents to feel too unsafe, incapable or uninterested in looking after their neighborhoods. It defines a community lacking in social control -which consists of the surveillance done by local businesses and residents who hold each other accountable to keep the neighborhood safe and clean- as one that will also run rampant with crime. The theory is filled with bias and disproportionately targets black people, other people of color and the poor. Stereotypes have turned the broken windows practice into a form of racial profiling; Black, Latinx and Hispanic people are statistically the most vulnerable to being targeted by police. The sight of a broken window combined with minorities in low-income areas can qualify as disorder, sometimes all it takes is the sight of minorities and the poor alone. There isn’t a tried and true method of classifying a neighborhood as disorderly, either. Police officers make the decision based on their personal perception of disorder. Perception is very personal so deciding whether a community is or isn’t chaotic is likely done through the lens of implicit bias. Especially considering the way culture, race, gender, and other social variables influence how we see ourselves, others and general take on life. Is there a way to avoid bias when making decisions based on perception?
Many people, George Kelling included, believe better training and education is the answer. I wonder how much of an impact more training will have on an institution with such murky and complex history. Afterall, the patrolling of slaves and Native Americans and maintaining economic order for the wealthy helped form the concept of today's American police. The focus wasn’t on protection but structuring and upholding classism and white supremacy. Of course, things have changed and developed in the realm of law enforcement, but theories like broken windows tell us policing in the US is still about maintaining order. More training is happening but it's for the militarization of the police force. The state is maintaining economic order, but community-based and culturally relevant organizations are rarely given enough money and support to survive. To law enforcement, maintaining order is about controlling the less advantaged in order to preserve the comfort of the privileged. Studies done by criminologists can’t confirm a connection between crime and the broken windows theory, but they can confirm broken windows policing to have a very little effect on crime rates. The entire nation began to see a drastic decrease in crime rates in the 1990s- before the widespread use of the broken windows practice. Experts say that everything operates on an ebb and flow, even human behavior, even crime, and the drop is apart of a natural cycle. The spike in crime rates in the late 1970s and throughout the 80s resulted in a drop in crime rates in the 1990s, coincidentally as broken windows policing grew in popularity.
I noticed a few cities require an ethics and professionalism and cultural diversity course be taken while training for the police academy, but I can’t be sure these topics are ever revisited in an educational setting afterward.
Being educated on social disparities isn’t the final destination on the ride to social equity. In order for people within law enforcement to judge critically and objectively, they’ll need to consistently confront their abusive beliefs and behavior, the ones that help perpetuate the oppression of the public. They’ll need to understand the importance of checking themselves whenever necessary. Acknowledge their privilege first, then use their privilege to become apart of the effort to end the oppression.
Gathered information on women incarcerated has repeatedly proved the majority of women in jail are there because of non-violent offenses. To some, their offenses can be considered survival crimes. Shoplifting and burglary, domestic disputes, public order crimes like prostitution, public intoxication and drug-related offenses can all be grouped into crimes for survival. Women of color especially experience financial instability because of wage and wealth gaps; they take home lighter paychecks and have little to no access to wealth building opportunities. Public assistance may help, but getting by still isn't easy. These days everything is overpriced, rent is too high and we’re all aware healthcare isn’t free- you can work yourself into oblivion and still not be able to break even. During the study of women incarcerated in 2014, it was found that 60% of women in jail did not have a full-time job and almost 30% of women in jail received public assistance prior to arrest.
In America’s capitalist existence, being poor is often seen as a personal failure and not the state’s. Instead of providing people of ‘disorderly’ communities with resources and aid, the government leaves residents to fend for themselves in a society not designed for their success. For many women, becoming involved in the justice system is often a byproduct of their fight for survival. The neighborhoods policeman classify as disorderly are also the home of women struggling to pay rent and provide for their families. The women coping with drug and alcohol addiction, women who see healthcare as a luxury. When they aren’t being deserted, they’re made out to be the problem of society- not the racism, sexism, capitalism the country runs on. It’s persecution for being poor and marginalization for being a person of color.
Vera Institute's report on women incarcerated
The Sentencing Project's statistics of women and girls involved in the justice system
Women in jail
Women's wealth and wage gap
Read George Kelling's article on broken windows here.