Thinking About Crime


Thinking About Crime, by James Q. Wilson, New York: Basic Books, 1975, 231 pp., $10.00.

James Q. Wilson, professor of government at Harvard, has written a unique and important book. After a decade during which liberals and the news media closed their eyes to soaring crime rates, crime finally surfaced in the seventies as a live issue. Unfortunately, the response, both in rhetoric and in government programs, generally bore little relation to the actual problem. The virtue of Wilson's book, by contrast, is its thorough grounding in reality. Unlike many academics, Wilson has been there. He has ridden in patrol cars, hung around police stations, visited jails, and immersed himself in the grim statistics that describe what really happens in our misnamed criminal justice "system." Like his former Harvard colleague, Edward Banfield, Wilson forces us to face up to some rather unpleasant truths about what is really going on.

Such as? The fact that there is really very little the police can do about the level of crime; in fact, experiments in which the amount of patrol was markedly altered showed either no change in crime rates or only short-lived changes. The fact that only a few percent of all crimes ever result in an arrest, and only a few percent of those arrested ever serve time in jail or prison. The fact that the court system serves principally to determine what should be done with the criminal in its custody—not to determine guilt or innocence. The fact that most crime is committed by many-time repeaters who are wise to the way the system works and are quite unlikely to be rehabilitatable. The fact that few if any rehabilitation programs work (and some are actually counterproductive).

To one who has spent some time working in the field of criminal justice, these observations are not startling. Nor are they new. All were known as long ago as 1967 when the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice issued a series of reports calling for a major overhaul of the criminal justice system. Yet the commission's work, and the multibillion-dollar Federal programs that followed, failed to come to grips with these and other aspects of the real world. Most of the criminologists who served on the commission based their advice on their general ideological and political views. And because these views meshed with those of the people in power in Washington, they became the basis for Federal crime-control policy, enshrined in the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.

Wilson subjects these views to a sharply critical analysis. The focus of modern criminology, he explains, has been on seeking the causes of crime. Much effort has been devoted to constructing theories dealing with values, attitudes, family conditions, neighborhood demographics, etc. The problem with such theories is twofold: in addition to being hard to prove, they are practically useless as a basis for formulating public policy. As Wilson puts it:

From the point of view of public policy…such explanations are of little value, because government has no way of changing in any systematic fashion family backgrounds, deep-seated attitudes, friendship patterns, or media images. And even if government could do these things, the cost would be frightful—not only in money terms, because the programs would have to be directed at the 95 who are not likely to be criminal in order to be certain of reaching the 5 who are, but also in terms of those fundamental human values that would be jeopardized if government possessed the capacity to direct the inner life of the family or to mold the mental state of its citizens.

Policy analysis, in contrast to causal analysis, would look at the desired end result (less crime) and attempt to determine what things a "democratic and libertarian" government may legitimately do to bring this about. The members of the commission failed to follow this approach, focusing instead on the need to get at the "root causes" of crime and to "treat" rather than punish criminals.

That there was little evidence regarding the causes of crime or the efficacy of treatment did not bother those social scientists. After all, in those days everyone knew that punishment is, a la Karl Menninger, a "crime" and that criminals are the victims of an unfair, repressive society. Hence billions were poured into programs to fight poverty in the name of crime prevention; into other programs to humanize the police, reform bail procedures, and divert many criminals into make-work programs or counseling; and into large-scale prison reform. The fact that crime rates continued to leap higher only serves to underscore Wilson's critique.

But the book is no right-wing "law and order" tract. Besides making clear what is not known about crime and what has been found not to work, Wilson provides a thorough and careful overview of the little that is known and offers a series of policy recommendations based on this knowledge. To the person seeking knowledge, then, Wilson's book is invaluable. He reviews the major studies of the past two decades, such as Marvin Wolfgang's classic tracking of 10,000 Philadelphia boys, Robert Martinson's landmark analysis of 231 experimental studies on correctional treatment programs, and recent experiments by the New York City Rand Institute, the Police Foundation, and others.

Some of the principal conclusions to emerge from these studies are that repeaters account for the vast bulk of arrests (and presumably of crimes) and that what is done with repeaters is therefore of considerable importance. The plain fact is that very little systematic attention is focused on this question. Although penalties for repeaters are supposedly more severe, vast numbers of them pass into and out of the criminal justice system as a matter of routine, taking advantage of release without bail, diversion programs, plea bargaining, and probation to return quickly to the streets and resume plying their trades.

As Wilson takes pains to point out, the crucial nexus of decision making in all of this is the court system—the prosecutors and the judges. For it is the courts that make the sentencing decisions. "It is not too much to say," Wilson notes, "that many sentences being administered are, in the strict sense, irrational—that is, there is no coherent goal toward which they are directed." With no coherent rationale for this most crucial of decisions, it is no wonder that the system today neither rehabilitates nor deters.

The rehabilitation/deterrence controversy is one of Wilson's most important topics. Carefully marshalling the available evidence, he shows both that deterrence works and that rehabilitation (at least as practiced to date) does not. More specifically, he cites cross-state comparisons by Isaac Ehrlich of the University of Chicago and by others that indicate that certainty of punishment (but not necessarily severity) is correlated with lower levels of crime. At the same time, he cites the studies by Martinson and others that show that when measured by properly controlled experiments (in which prisoners are randomly selected for either conventional incarceration or a rehabilitation program), rehabilitation programs have failed to reduce recidivism. Most such programs claiming to show success are found, on examination, to employ overt or subtle procedures for preselecting those inmates most likely to succeed, thereby proving only that certain selected inmates can be "rehabilitated," not that rehabilitation works better than incarceration as a general rule.

These findings should not really be surprising. After all, if the typical inmate is a many-time repeater who has finally slipped up badly enough to be sent to the joint, can we really expect that participation in six months of group therapy or job training will persuade him to give up the only career and lifestyle he has ever known? Furthermore,

We have learned how difficult it is by governmental means to improve the educational attainments of children or to restore stability and affection to the family, and in these cases we are often working with willing subjects in moments of admitted need. Criminal rehabilitation requires producing equivalent changes in unwilling subjects under conditions or duress or indifference.

Having rubbed our noses in these harsh realities, Professor Wilson sums up by outlining what he thinks can be done about crime. Since a small number of repeat offenders account for a majority of all crimes, there is immense potential payoff in taking these people out of circulation. A New York study by Shlomo and Reuel Shinnar estimated that if every person convicted of a serious crime were simply imprisoned for three years, the rate of serious crime would drop by two-thirds, simply due to these persons being out of circulation (that is, not counting any possible deterrent effects on other criminals). Increasing the certainty of punishment, by means of coherent, consistent judicial policies, could produce additional deterrent effects.

Though stressing the benefits of incapacitation, Wilson is not necessarily endorsing today's prisons, which all too often are inhumane, debilitating schools of crime. Indeed, he points out that deprivation of liberty can take many forms: confinement at night with daytime work-release, enrollment in a closely supervised community-based program, etc. (Although he does not deal with the issue of restitution to victims, work-release programs can easily incorporate this desirable feature.) On the other hand, Wilson urges that conventional probation—"releasing an offender on the understanding that occasionally he would visit his probation officer"—be virtually abolished, presumably because of its ineffectiveness at either incapacitating or rehabilitating.

Throughout the book Wilson keeps returning to a concept much maligned by sociologists: the idea that people (even criminals) weigh in advance the costs, risks, and benefits of their actions and respond to perceived changes in these factors. Though "enlightened" criminologists scoff at this notion as a simplistic carryover from 19th-century economic man, Wilson points out study after study in which criminal behavior does indeed appear to be influenced by cost-benefit considerations. He also delights in pointing out the contradictory stance taken by many liberals who hold, on the one hand, that poverty (that is, economic need) leads to crime, but that crime cannot be deterred by raising its perceived cost. Economic factors are either operative or not, and the evidence is that they are.

Thus Wilson advises that crime be made more costly to would-be criminals while simultaneously jobs are being made more attractive. Although noting the tremendously high unemployment rates among youth, and minority youth in particular, Wilson fails to identify two of the most important policy changes that could be made to deal with this problem: repealing (or modifying) minimum-wage and child-labor laws, so that more teenagers could have access to the job market.

The book has several other shortcomings, including Wilson's failure to take seriously the issue of victimless crimes (except such youth offenses as running away and being out of control, which he agrees should be decriminalized). His inconclusive discussion of the death penalty would have been significantly affected by Isaac Ehrlich's 1975 study of the remarkable deterrent effect of executions—which was published just after Wilson's book appeared in print.

Still, in all, this is a sober, thoughtful book, one that is well worth reading by anyone who is interested in dealing with crime as a present-day reality. There is much ugliness there to face, but face up to it we must. Wilson sums up aptly:

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 opportunities, ponder our reaction to wickedness as a cue to what they might profitably do. We have trifled with the wicked, made sport of the innocent, and encouraged the calculators. Justice suffers, and so do we all.

Editor Robert Poole, Jr. is a consultant on local government who has evaluated a number of crime-control and criminal justice projects. He is the author of Cut Local Taxes (Reason Press, 1976) and is chairman of the board of advisors of the Local Government Center.