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

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.

Between that closing and his opening, where he states that "the proper design of public policies requires a clear and sober understanding of the nature of man and, in particular, of the extent to which that nature can be changed by plan," Wilson is consistently informed, thoughtful, and insightful. For instance, responding to the debate over deterrence, in which social scientists are divided over whether punishment of offenders induces others to refrain from criminal activities, Wilson remarks:

If we try to make the penalties for crime swifter and more certain, and it should turn out that deterrence does not work, then all we have done is increase the risks facing persons who commit a crime. If we fail to increase the certainty and swiftness of penalties, and it should turn out that deterrence does work, then we have needlessly increased the risk of innocent persons being victimized.

Likewise, Wilson's collaborators in Crime and Public Policy (two of them recent presidents of the American Society of Criminology) provide sound if sometimes unconventional readings of the literature. For the most part, the contributors are consistent with and supportive of each other. Jan M. and Marcia R. Chaiken predict that the crime rate will decline, if only slightly, as youngsters from the postwar baby boom mature beyond the crime-prone years. Alfred Blumstein adds that their prison-prone years (somewhat later than the crime-prone years) are yet ahead of us, so prison populations will exceed the capacity of existing facilities. Based on individual factors correlated with criminality (such as, for example, prior convictions for serious crime), Peter W. Greenwood builds an approach of "selective incapacitation," by which he means the incarceration only of criminals most likely to commit a disproportionate amount of serious crime.

Along the way are challenges to policies recently in vogue that address what might be called circumstantial factors. For example, the link between crime and the business cycle is too slight to warrant shifting from the stick of punishment to the carrot of employment programs (Richard B. Freeman). Second, informal social control is not clearly improved by changes in the physical environment that are thought to enhance the sense of territorial belonging, increase the inclination toward natural neighborhood surveillance, and improve the quality of life (Charles A. Murray).

One of Wilson's best ideas, highly original for criminology today (though in truth quite old-fashioned), concerns the connection between order maintenance and crime control, which he expresses metaphorically: much as broken windows, if unrepaired, encourage more breakage, so disorderly neighborhoods, if uncontrolled, will pass into the hands of criminals. The control of neighborhoods, however, is purchased by patrol and at the price of certain rights (for example, of drunks to lie wherever they fall). Wilson thereby sharply reposes the question whether the balance now struck between rights and powers is appropriate—without, however, answering it.

For the courts, Brian Forst recommends voluntary guidelines for prosecutors and judges. Steven Schlesinger urges twofold bail reform—release on recognizance (bail free) for the nonviolent; preventive detention (without bail) for the potentially criminal. He also argues for total repeal of the exclusionary rule, by which courts rule out evidence that has been illegally seized by the police; the more usual course is to advocate reform, whereby "good faith" exceptions would be made for inadvertent violation of constitutional rights in the course of gathering evidence. For corrections, Blumstein rejects selective incarceration as a solution to too little prison capacity, instead urging a "mixed strategy" of limited prison construction and linkage of sentencing policies to prison capacities.

Daniel Glaser reminds us that the vast majority of convicts will serve their time beyond the walls of prison, out in the community under probation and parole supervision. There, beyond the prison system, the control of crime turns out to be familial. Travis Hirschi takes on the notion that the "individual would be noncriminal were it not for the operation of unjust and misguided institutions." He urges nothing less than punishment of children.

This conclusion may come as no surprise to those millions of parents who have spent years talking firmly to their children, yelling and screaming at them, spanking them, grounding them, cutting off their allowances, and in general doing whatever they could think of to try to get the little bastards to behave; but it is exceedingly rare among social scientists, especially those who deal with crime and delinquency.

According to what he calls an affection-monitor-recognize-punish model, "The parent who cares for the child will watch his behavior, see him doing things he should not do, and correct him. Presto! A socialized, decent human being." Of course, as Hirschi also notes, things can go awry at any one of the four points; but if he is largely right, then crime control begins—and ends—in the family, not in "the large and expensive bureaucracies" to which, Wilson notes, we have delegated crime control.

Finally, Wilson offers his own "root cause" of crime. It rests, quite stunningly, in character, the decline of crime in the late 19th century is owed to the "civilizing process" of the character-building institutions and efforts that flourished then, with attention devoted to education in morality. If Wilson is right, then the focus of crime control must be on the individual—and where else would an individualist have it? Thus, the paradox of individualist policy on crime: in its liberation of the individual from force and fraud, it must be hardest of all on the individual—as parent, as child, as delinquent, as criminal—for there, not in society, is the ultimate locus of responsibility, hence of crime and its causation. And we've known it all along!

Laurin Wollan is an associate professor in the School of Criminology at Florida State University.