Crime-Stoppers' Textbooks

Crime, edited by James Q. Wilson and Joan Petersilia, San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies Press, 631 pages, $69.95/$39.95 paper

Criminal Justice?: The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility, edited by Robert James Bidinotto, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York: Foundation for Economic Education, 304 pages, $29.95/$19.95 paper>

To Protect and To Serve: The LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams, by Joe Domanick, New York: Pocket Books, 497 pages, $23.00

Intellectuals once scoffed at the popular media for their intense coverage of crime stories. But now small forests fall as our best and brightest, not to mention nearly everybody else, weigh in on the hottest issue of our times. In a way, the entire phenomenon is amazing. So many voices, so many theories, so many studies, so much data, so many fads and fashions. And so much tax money being spent.

Predatory crime has not been a huge problem throughout most of human history. Why? As the late Bell Curve co-author Richard Herrnstein writes in the collection Crime, "Most serious crimes are activities that no human society has ever tolerated." Every society has recognized that predation and predators must be suppressed, often ruthlessly, if peaceful social cooperation, nay civilization, is to proceed. There was guilt-free repression of criminals, regardless of race, color, or creed. And these societies didn't rely on mountains of social science research or massive federal programs to solve their crime problems tolerably well, either.

Perhaps a superior way to express it is that a moral consensus held: an unchallenged belief that each man is a free moral agent who knows the difference between right and wrong. A criminal, then, freely and viciously chooses evil, trampling the lives and property of others. To be sure, crime is human behavior and therefore complex. But the key issue is whether individuals choose or are merely corks in the ocean.

The two edited volumes--Crime and Criminal Justice?--make important contributions and each deserves its acclaim. But despite a similarity of origin and intent, they could hardly be more different. Crime, edited by James Q. Wilson and Joan Petersilia, is 600-plus pages of the latest scholarship on crime by 28 leading academic experts. Encyclopedic in range, it will stand as a reference source for years. Its principal defect lies in its values-neutral approach.

Criminal Justice?, edited by Robert James Bidinotto, relies on a morally committed approach to crime. Bidinotto, a Reader's Digest writer whose story on Willie Horton sparked a presidential campaign furor in 1988, has assembled 18 articles from 15 writers, including four essays of his own, and they read like the work of a single mind. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must note that Bidinotto includes a 1984 essay of mine from The Freeman.)

The Wilson-Petersilia book repeatedly clashes with Bidinotto over issues of free will and crime prevention. Wilson and Petersilia, for example, claim that understanding crime is tantamount to unlocking some of the "deepest mysteries of human nature and the greatest complexities of human society." Social science, they say, has made a start on this great voyage but has a "very long way to go." They caution that it is a great mistake "to assume that we already know what the problem is and how to solve it," and they call for more research and more policy based on that research.

The social science researchers featured in Crime repeatedly avoid the word choice. Instead, they favor "precursors," "influences," and "correlates" with crime. Not surprisingly, we learn that troubles and social pathologies are correlated, although the associations are loose. Herrnstein, for instance, ultimately admits that the real cause of crime is "people for whom the positive side of the ledger sufficiently outweighs the negative side and who have the opportunity for breaking the law." Yet he spends much of his survey pointing out that, "Most individuals with the early precursors of criminal behavior do not become serious offenders, but most (albeit not all) serious offenders have shown the precursors earlier in life.... [T]he pattern suggests that we do not know all the precursors." Such results almost beg to be interpreted as choice.

In this non-judgmental vein, Herrnstein takes up the case of Arthur Shawcross, the serial killer who murdered 11 women in the late 1980s in and around Rochester, New York, while on parole after serving 15 years for killing two children. Herrnstein reads off Shawcross's traits--lifelong antisocial behavior, XYY chromosome, below-average verbal IQ, and so on--and observes that the person who "suffered" this improbable "collection of risks" developed into an offender of such "dangerousness" is not mystifying. Suffered? Risks? It all sounds like a contagious disease, involuntary compulsions, free of moral choices. But we can always find people of similar description who made less vicious choices. As well-known criminologist Stanton Samenow remarks in Criminal Justice?, "Psychology always has a clever theory about any bit of behavior and offers an explanation, but only after the fact."

James Q. Wilson, author of The Moral Sense and the man proclaimed the best social scientist in America by Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, begs to differ with Samenow. In Crime, Wilson declares, "Much of our uniquely American crime problem...arises, not from the failings of individuals, but from the concentrations of people at risk for failing in disorderly neighborhoods." His prevention measures would include "wide-ranging and fundamental changes" in the life circumstances of "children most at risk," including relocations of households into neighborhoods with "intact social structures," group homes for welfare mothers, and boarding schools for children. This is scary stuff, especially coming from a man who admits that he doesn't know if any of it would work.

Indeed, the Wilson-Petersilia volume demonstrates blind spots even on its own "neutral" grounds. James Lynch's article on international comparisons, for example, points out that the risk of lethal violence is "much higher in the United States than in other nations, even those most institutionally similar." Yet this approach overlooks a more-imaginative comparison of the northern border states most similar to Canada in their demographic makeup. By this test, U.S. homicide and other crime rates are no higher than in our much-celebrated neighbor to the north.

But the book's main flaw remains its utilitarianism and determinism. Travis Hirschi, a prominent University of Arizona criminology professor, is the only writer in Crime to mention morality, though in a convoluted way: "Crime and immorality have the same causes and consequences and are thus the same thing. They are the same thing from other perspectives as well." Hirschi also hints at free will in his statement, "Most children turn out okay whatever their family circumstances."

Just about every crime issue is covered in the Wilson-Petersilia book--inner city schools, informal community controls, police deployment, wars on guns and drugs--in a sophisticated but ultimately unsatisfying way. While information is nice, other societies have demonstrated repeatedly that social science research is neither necessary nor sufficient for low crime rates. Crime control is mostly a moral issue, combined with the will to follow through. In a strange way, our social scientists resemble criminals in their flight from morality. The policy recommendations are uninspired, lack conviction, and are soft on criminals.

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