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The Theory of Broken Window and Crimes in India – A Socio-Legal Analysis

Broken Window Theory

The human psyche influences every aspect of an individual, from physical to mental attributes, and the psychology of every person is a result of the environment they grow up in and spend a considerable time inhabiting. Hence one frequently hears that they would probably grow up to become a doctor or a lawyer if any one of their parents (or both) excels in that field or any other particular subject. This is because that child grows up in such an environment where they subconsciously get familiar with some particular aspects of their parent’s occupation.

Similarly, society largely agrees upon the belief that a criminal’s child is more likely to follow the same path as their parent because the foundation of a child’s personality is based upon their impression of their parents- a child learns by imitating those around it. Studies shown by credible sources like The Atlantic and The National Academies of Press have shown that a child with convicted parents is twice as likely to display early delinquent behaviour than a child growing up in better circumstances. 

The study of factors leading to a person indulging in criminal and anti-social activities is known as the theory of Broken Window. It is a criminology theory that correlates visible signs of crime, anti-social behaviour and other sociological deviants that trigger the civil disorder, which encourages the perpetuity of the cycle of crime in urban environments. In this article, the author breaks down the notions attached to criminal behaviour, touching upon a few cases of juvenile offenders, and how the Broken Window theory would facilitate in comprehending what induces individuals to exhibit antisocial traits in relation to India’s challenge of addressing the high crime rate.

Understanding the Dimensions of deviant Behaviour – Juvenile Offenders and the Laws

Criminal behaviour is dynamic- a potential offender need not show questionable traits 24×7 but the circumstances they live under may lead them to develop recessive behavioural patterns that would emerge when the restraint factor previously regulating them dissolves for reasons like independence, maturity or the lack of it, among others. The patterns may be recessive but they have to be identified nonetheless and thus experts have divided the dimensions of criminal cognitive behaviour under four broad heads that contribute to the ‘making of a criminal’, all of which are closely interlinked- 

  • Biological/Physical- Men have been found to be more violent compared to women, especially with regard to sexual violence. According to the Social Learning theory, men are more likely to associate with antisocial peers because men have been cultured to disassociate with emotion. Little boys are often scolded for being “too girly” or “effeminate” for being sentimental or liking stereotypically feminine objects. On the other hand, young boys get rewarded for not expressing their emotions, crying publicly, etc. and negative traits like aggression and rough play get reinforced by people saying “boys will be boys”. Because this has been perpetuated for generations, young boys imitate their older male members who further reinforce what has now been termed as ‘male privilege’ and rightly so, because while men are known to act violently under stress due to their outlet being frustration and anger, women have been groomed to internalise their angst as per the Strain theory.  Owing to the expectations based on their biological and physical attributes, their reaction may be different but ultimately lead to a state of neurotic mental ability (or inability) to fathom or withdraw from intrusive, possibly dangerous thoughts.
  • Psychological Disorder/Trauma- If I were to tell you that children need their parent’s attention to survive, would you be surprised? Definitely not. But if I were to tell you that preteenagers who were neglected by parents- not abused per se, just neglected- would even kill for parental attention, would you be surprised? Probably yes. It is quite understandable a victim of abuse would somehow get involved in criminal activity or at least develop unhealthy habits. While abuse is visible and tangible, neglect is intangible and even subtle. Usually, children who are neglected come from broken families, poor backgrounds or unfit parents- in all these cases, the neglect is justified because the parent convinces the child that either the child is at fault or the parent is doing everything to ensure their survival, that is, the child should not act selfish (in other words, a young child is held responsible for the parents’ decision). This low self-esteem continues to burst in the form of carrying forward the trauma their guardians put them through and this cycle continues until external intervention, which is usually the police and justice system. Additionally, under such subpar environments, one can certainly develop mental health issues like depression and indulge in alcohol or drugs to stay afloat. Addiction comes easy but to keep it up, individuals start dealing with drug dealers, and gangs, stealing money or valuables, going as far as obtaining illegal weapons and developing a personality based on threats and violence. For example, a young girl who witnesses violence/abuse at home would look for affection and attention elsewhere and such defenceless persons are the perfect targets for sexual predators or short-term, fickle relationships usually with shady people. Now there are two possibilities for this-
    • Sexual exploitation which would include her getting pregnant and raising a child in a similar environment she grew up in. And if she is a young or teenaged mother, her helplessness is going to stress the child to the point where the child may either develop stress disorders early, leave home once of age or imitate the negative environment and continue the vicious cycle of trauma and psychological distress.
    • Fickle relationships include getting involved with groups that may fulfil the need for attention but in turn, the activities they would take part in is going to either lead to mental deterioration until law enforcement kicks in or vice versa.
  • Social and Economic- Most of the prisoners in India belong to the poor and backward classes. The discrimination certain groups face stems from traditional and historical notions of hierarchy and stereotypes. It prevents them from accessing many facilities for which they commit offences. Many of the offenders who commit robbery, dacoity, theft, etc. consider it the easier route because not only do they lack the social security feature to acquire monetary and related facilities, but they are habitual offenders who have managed to keep away from law enforcement by targeting people who would find it difficult to prove their involvement. 
  • Education and Income- Education is more or less an extension of the socio-economic factor of crime. In a world driven by merit, the inability to earn legitimate education even of the minimum requirement deprives many of economic and financial independence and liberty. Thereby, inferiority and frustration force one to take part in illicit affairs that may serve as short-term relief but fall on the wrong side of law and order.

The Delhi 2012 Rape Case (Nirbhaya Case) brought to light how juveniles can also be part of the most heinous crimes to exist and may also be the main player in the same. The minor’s involvement caused the introduction of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 under which a juvenile aged between 16 and 18 years can be tried as an adult for heinous crimes after assessing the mental and physical capacity of the juvenile in question, as per Section 15(1) and Section 18(3) of the Act.

The Amendments that have been brought into the Act were created to keep juveniles out of the adult justice system because whatever the cause may be, the Act in its original text did not differentiate between “heinous crimes” and “serious crime”, meaning that a juvenile could be tried as an adult even in cases of possession of illegal substances like drugs, alcohol, etc. It would defeat the objective of the Act which is to protect the interests of children as much as possible because not only is the adult justice system tenfold harsher, but it is also a bumpy road to justice due to the sluggish rate at which cases are resolved. 

The Amendments are a result of the Broken Window theory’s relevance because it takes into account the interests of the offender and acts as a policing method rather than dooming them to death. Broken Window theory relies highly on providing the persons in question with an environment where they are allowed the space to reconnect with the normal reality of the civil world. Rehabilitation of the minor accused in the Nirbhaya case may not have lessened the threat he may continue to possess but it provided him with the opportunity to comprehend the impact of his actions on his own future. Coming to minor offences, minors are often seen driving motor vehicles if they do not have a licence.

The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019 now holds the vehicle owner or guardian of the minor responsible for the offence by penalty of high fees and three years of imprisonment; as for the juvenile, they would be tried under the Juvenile Justice Act. This penalty is again aimed at the economic factor of a family; Rs 25,000 is a high price which would serve as a deterrent to allowing minors to drive. Also, the fact that guardians are liable for juveniles involved in accidents has a psychological impact on parents to ensure that they supervise their children to not get involved in certain activities because however thrilling they may be, adolescents do lack the necessary ability to make informed judgements. 

The Broken Window Theory on India’s Crime Front

Juvenile Delinquency

The Broken Window Theory, despite being popular among criminologists for its swift and effective application, has one major flaw– it does not consistently provide the link between the occurrence of crime and the prevalence of disorder that enables its commission. Here, the critique is that the theory is inadequate by basing its conclusions on numbered test subjects to prove that fear of civil disorder leads to an increase in crime rates.

Additionally, its blind application would lead to a situation of zero tolerance; a result that could easily backfire and cause further mass agitation. However, the Broken Window theory despite its flaws is quite suitable to study the varied demography of Indian offenders because the statistics provide adequate and elaborate information regarding offenders of particular offences also, it is not a priority to pinpoint when the offender would commit an offence but who is vulnerable enough to do something harmful to another. 

Illustration: Taking petty offences into account, India has extremely poor roadside hygiene standards. Despite posters and pamphlets discouraging them, people still urinate or spit on the walls of public as well as private property. Introducing effective methods for recognising wrongdoers and imposing strict penalties upon them would automatically lead to a reduction of such acts with people becoming proactive in ensuring the protection of their property, thereby increasing social control and restoring civil order. 

Till now, the broken window theory has been applied only to the road safety issues India faces because as per 2019 statistics, India had over four lakh road accidents with a 25 percent ratio of fatality. The country accounts for six percent of global road accidents although it has only one percent of the global vehicle population. Comparing 2016 to 2018, 2019 showed a slight decrease in accidents but the fatality rate has remained constant.

The reason why experts are urging lawmakers to apply this principle for relatively straightjacket issues is that a case study in New York City showed how apprehending small-time offenders helped decrease bigger crimes because consistent background checks along with mandatory correctional regulations, petty criminals who had resources to commit bigger crimes were nicked even before they could call the big shots. Legal and field experts believe that the punishment for relatively simpler issues should not be extremely harsh but the visible crackdown and authorities showing their interest in such an initiative would facilitate achieving calmer traffic management. 

Comparing reckless drivers to serious offenders is not meaningful but if the Broken Window theory is successful for these problems, Government agencies and regulatory bodies would be much more inclined to implement them exponentially for serious crime prevention too. Why such experiments can be relied upon because road safety issues are much larger and herd-like in nature; crimes like murder, robbery, sexual assault, etc. are more limited in number and particular. In other words, if large-scale problems can be tackled using the broken window theory, authorities would have sufficient material to comprehend the possible framing of the Broken Window theory to curb specific crimes. 

Reasons for difficulty in Profiling

Understanding the Broken Window Theory so far reveals how psychological and sociological factors play a damning role in moulding individuals but what concerns experts dealing with such persons on a regular basis is the fact how many of them were aware of the influence their unfortunate circumstances played in pushing them over the edge. So why did they not reach out for help? There are two answers to this- some succumbed to their disturbing temptations while some did try to seek help but were denied because of-

  • Social stigma and shame
  • Lack of accessibility and unawareness

Now most cases do prove that people with intangible and latent mental/emotional/psychological issues lack the logical coherence to realise they may be susceptible to developing acute deviant tendencies but those who identified it failed to successfully deal with them due to the abovementioned grounds. As ironic as it sounds, social stigmas are found to be higher in well-to-do countries than in their inferior counterparts; reasons for inaccessibility are caused due to the generalised misconceptions of mental maturity and age. 

  • Social Stigma and Shame- Growing up, the current generation often heard how parents would frown upon the appointment of school counsellors because therapy and counselling are only for those who are ‘mad’ or mentally deranged. With the competition in the national and international platform increasing, stress, fatigue and mental exhaustion has increased tenfold to physical exhaustion. And this is going to continue because modernisation and capitalism go together, both of which run the world and allow one to live a life of desired outcomes and comfort. Nevertheless, the complexity and impersonal nature of the modern work era have necessitated the role of counsellors/therapists because such professionals have proven to help get back a healthy state of mind and balance in one’s life. Yet the stigma exists because of the deep-rooted, misleading and distorted ideas of image and reputation which is passed down from generation to generation, not leaving even a young child free from its falsity. Coming to the reference of how advanced societies perpetuate the same, it all boils down to the immoderate nature of capitalism. By and large mental or psychological issues are believed to affect each aspect of a person- personal to professional- which is erroneous. Since this unsound belief has already made its room in most minds, another belief arising from it is how one suffering from any mental health issues should ‘look’ like and not conforming to the typical ‘appearance’ or behaviours could label someone as a liar or faker. Additionally, getting diagnosed can render one unfit for their job because it could hamper their productivity. Considering how fast-paced the capitalist market is and the soaring price for comfortable living, one would rather go undiagnosed and sick than get the help one needs. 
  • Inaccessibility and Unawareness- For someone to suffer from mental and psychological distress, age cannot be the defining factor. A 10-year-old can be as anxious as a 30-year-old, full-time working adult. The only difference would be how both behave- the child is more likely to act out while the adult would seem put together but struggling with intrusive thoughts. But the child is more likely to face harsher circumstances because they would get labelled as cranky or notorious or destructive for they are unaware of how to communicate their psychological needs. Here, unawareness of both the child and parents leads to inaccessibility. If a 16-year-old would ask for their parent’s permission to seek help from a certified counsellor for any reason whatsoever, the parent is highly likely to rebuke them. Here, awareness still denies accessibility because, in India, teenagers still depend on their parents for financial support which would fetch them certain facilities. 

If you go on Instagram, this wave of psychological and emotional health information is making the rounds on Reels. With advancements in technology, it has become quite easy to avail at least the most basic set of information needed to take the next step. Now anonymity and psych consult together are possible due to the convenience of electronic gadgets and the internet. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has created virtual platforms enabling door-to-door facilities without compromising the privacy of the client. Then again, some of the prisoners in jails are illiterate while most of them are semi-literate but literacy does not guarantee education of morals and the human psyche. Therefore, the State and its respective organisations along with civil societies need to pool their resources to attain some control over this unending spiral of rise in crimes and increasing penalty with no apparent effect-

  • Cyberspace and cybersecurity need to be smartened and tightened through appropriate and just regulations so that legitimate suspicious actions can be detected earlier without actually disrupting a user’s right to freedom of speech and expression; reasonable restrictions upon the usage of cyberspace must be based on reasonable grounds of a rational and sound human being
  • Apart from laws and policies aimed at rehabilitation and affirmative action, what the State first needs to do are to close the gap that exists between the poor and rich with respect to access to certain facilities for mental and psychological needs. Additionally, society needs to engage in healthy conversations to erase the stigma that has wrongfully been attached to those going through mental struggles. 

Concluding the discussion on Broken Window Theory

Any society as vast and diverse as India’s is bound to be affected by the dents of poverty, inequality and inequity among other micro-level organisational issues, crime is a result of their unfortunate combination. Crime may be ‘beneficial’ to society in the long run by releasing, according to the functionalist sociological perspective of Emile Durkheim, but dealing with it for the shorter run is necessary because heightened crime rates also show the State’s failure to cater to the basic needs of its subjects.

The Indian Criminal Justice System is overburdened with pending criminal trials along with the ever upcoming cases. Certainly, crime can never truly be brought down to a zero; however dealing with individuals vulnerable to antisocial elements before they actually commit a wrong will not only lessen the unnecessary burden of comparatively trivial matters on the judiciary but the overall internal security, social harmony and law and order would also be strengthened. 

The State indeed has this challenging task upon their hands but wider coverage is possible only when the conversation is opened on even the smallest of platforms by individuals themselves, to ease those in need of rehabilitation into appropriate therapy and corrective programs because the bigger challenge is the stigma Indian society holds against psychological and emotional therapy and counselling. The shame that society has associated with one’s psychological struggles is what keeps people from seeking help and letting others help them, and in one way or another, that shame leads to the creation of a social ‘monster’. 


Editor’s Note
This article explains in detail a criminology theory known as the Broken Window Theory that correlates visible signs of crime, anti-social behaviour and other sociological deviants that triggers civil disorder and perpetuates the vicious crime cycle. The author has first explained the broad dimensions of deviant behaviour under this theory, particularly among juvenile offenders. The current legal framework in India in that regard and its evolution through certain case laws has also been highlighted by the author. Further, the scope and extent of the application of this theory in India have also been discussed by the author.

Lastly, the issues arising in applying this theory and curbing the crime rate in India have been explained by the author along with suggesting various possible and feasible measures that can be undertaken in order to resolve the same. The author has concluded by saying that our society needs to engage in healthy conversations in order to remove the shame and stigma associated with psychological disorders and mental health problems which consequently leads to people hesitating in taking help and becoming social monsters.

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