The Book Case: On Crime and Punishment

On Crime and Punishment

Thinking About Crime

(Revised edition)

By James Q. Wilson New York: Basic Books 265 pp. $19.95

Crime and Public Policy

Edited by James Q. Wilson San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies 290 pp. $22.95

Reviewed by Laurin Wollan

In the last decade or so, there has been an explosion of research in criminal justice, and James Q. Wilson of Harvard has been at the forefront of that explosion. In 1975, his Thinking About Crime provided a path-breaking neoconservative look at crime. Now he has revised that work, updating it but retaining its initial perspective. In another new work, Crime and Public Policy, Wilson has gathered a collection of original essays by leading scholars that highlights recent research in criminal justice.

Both books, dependably informative about basic mainstream issues of crime and criminal justice today, deserve the close attention of general readers and especially policymakers. Neither book takes for granted any special knowledge, yet both carry the reader quickly to the furthest reaches of what is known-at least by social scientists.

Wilson has omitted little of his 1975 book and added much. Though riding the wave of neoconservative reform of the criminal justice system (to which he has contributed so much), he attends early on to criticisms. He insists, first, that white-collar crime is not the highest priority; predatory crime is, both because of the fear it arouses and because of its violation of the social contract. Thus, Wilson makes predatory crime the focus of both books. Second, Wilson argues that poverty and deprivation are not the "root causes" of crime, so policies "helping" the poor and disadvantaged cannot do much to reduce crime. Third, prisons are not unnecessary or unnecessarily bad.

Fourth, capital punishment does not significantly influence crime in the streets. Fifth, gun control is not as promising an approach to violent crime as control of those who would bear guns for criminal purposes.

Those responses to criticisms reflect what Wilson calls his "central message," that "we can make more progress thinking analytically and experimentally about crime and its control than we can by exchanging slogans, rehearsing our ideology, or exaggerating the extent to which human nature or government institutions can be changed according to plan." Individualists will be further heartened to know that this is an academician who is as "struck now, as I was in 1975, by how keen and sure are the people's awareness of their own problems and interests, so much so that popular concern for crime and neighborhood safety preceded by several years political and intellectual concern for such problems."

The new books parallel each other in treating first the questions of crime and moving then to the criminal justice system, taking it up in the conventional sequence of police, courts, and corrections. The books converge in Wilson's policy conclusions: what is needed is (1) neighborhood self-help in cooperation with a police force that maintains order largely with foot patrols that concentrate on high-rate offenders; (2) better prosecutorial screening by making criminal-record information more quickly available; (3) early disposition of priority cases, with sentences shaped by guidelines to minimize discretion; (4) community-based corrections for minor offenses and offenders; (5) prison for high-rate offenders at fixed terms (no parole); and (6) improved prisons for inmate protection. Such a program, Wilson notes, though its parts are in place here and there, is resisted by "the entire criminal justice system," which is "governed by perverse incentives" not easily overcome. Progress in reforming the system, he concedes, "requires dull, unrewarding work in the trenches. There is no magic bullet."

Wilson ends, as in 1975, with his oft-quoted conclusion, but now amplified by the italicized sentences:

Wicked people exist. Nothing avails except to set them apart from innocent people. And many people, neither wicked nor innocent, but watchful, dissembling, and calculating of their chances, ponder our reaction to wickedness as a clue to what they might profitably do. Our actions speak louder than our words. When we profess to believe in deterrence and to value justice, but refuse to spend the energy and money required to produce either, we are sending a clear signal that we think that safe streets, unlike all other great public goods, can be had on the cheap. We thereby trifle with the wicked, make sport of the innocent, and encourage the calculators. Justice suffers, and so do we all.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement