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.
Wilson closes the book with a scare scenario: There will be 1 million more 14- to 17-year-olds—roughly half of them boys—in the year 2000 than today. Since the top 6 percent of males commit a majority of serious youth crime, it promises to get worse. "Get ready," Wilson says, although he doesn't say how. Two thoughts occur: Does he mean arm yourself? That's doubtful. And 30,000 more vicious punks? If we can't handle them, then we aren't prepared to handle much of anything.
In a marked contrast to Crime, Bidinotto's Criminal Justice? draws a tight bead on the helpless individual theory. "The ordinary citizen believes individuals are responsible for what they do," writes Bidinotto, "and thus should be held accountable for harm they do to others." By contrast, he says, the academic and legal communities start with the premise that the individual criminal has little personal responsibility because he is "shaped by a wide variety of forces—biological, psychological, or social—over which he has little volitional control."
The Wilson-Petersilia book never states it that clearly but hardly refutes the characterization. Bidinotto believes that the public is right and the experts—whom he calls the Excuse-Making Industry—wrong, although the experts have acquired the power to ruin the criminal justice system, twisting its purpose from the punishment of wrongdoers to their treatment and rehabilitation.
Bidinotto claims that the fundamental error of the social science establishment stems from its embrace of the philosophical doctrine of determinism, the idea that there is only one possible action for an individual at each moment, the net result of all the causes operating up to that moment. He tags it a "billiard ball" theory of human action. Free will or volition, by contrast, supposedly sounds "causeless" and therefore unscientific. In truth, organisms are purposeful. They are goal-directed. Humans have the additional capacity to think and direct their awareness. Acting in accord with our nature as reasoning organisms, we initiate actions in pursuit of our purposes and therefore we are causes, not just effects. To treat criminals as if they don't act purposefully, continually accepting or rejecting courses of action, implicitly ignores their humanity, and therefore the source of their criminality. This is a scientific approach to human behavior and, rather than violating the law of causality, it accurately diagnoses the nature of things.
In his contribution to Criminal Justice?, philosopher David Kelley characterizes criminals as individuals with "a gross deficiency in what used to be called the moral faculties" and as "profoundly amoral." The psychopath is "a prototype to which criminals conform more or less closely."
Kelley argues that the same conflict between free will and determinism arose in philosophy but that the trail of "scientific inquiry keeps circling back" to our capacity for conceptual thought and choice. The old assumption that science is a witness against free will turns out to be false. Human beings turn out to be far more complicated than determinists believe, and that explains why the correlates with criminality are so loose and will always be so.
Bidinotto claims that the deadened conscience of criminals has been encouraged by the moral relativism of the 1960s, as well as the continuing erosion of the moral landscape courtesy of the Excuse-Making Industry. Within the corrections industry, the practical consequences are that discipline has been relaxed and punishment largely banished: The likelihood of speedy release shapes the whole environment. Inmates pretend to reform themselves, and their keepers pretend to believe them. Community-based corrections continue the fiasco.
Stanton Samenow, who has interviewed thousands of criminals, insists, "The criminal is rational, calculating, and deliberate in his actions. Criminals know right from wrong….A habit is not a compulsion. On any occasion, the thief can refrain from stealing if he is in danger of getting caught."
Samenow's findings lead to his critique of his scientific rivals: "Sociological explanations for crime, plausible as they may seem, are simplistic. If they were correct, we'd have far more criminals than we do….Criminals claim that they were rejected by parents, neighbors, schools, and employers, but rarely does a criminal say why he was rejected…. [Criminals] chose the companions they liked and admired….Far from being a formless lump of clay, the criminal shapes others more than they do him….[W]e must see the criminal as the problem, not society." John DiIulio and Charles Logan add, "Punishment is an affirmation of the autonomy, responsibility, and dignity of the individual."
The Bidinotto volume has a respectable showing of statistics, but its strength remains its wisdom. Judge Ralph Adam Fine may offer the most penetrating line in the book: "We keep our hands out of a flame because it hurt the very first time (not the second, fifth, or tenth time) we touched the fire."
In terms of specific public policies, Criminal Justice? recommends various changes in the rules of the game, such as a ban on plea bargaining; a ban on psychiatric testimony on the "state of mind" of the accused at the time of the crime; replacement of the Miranda and search-and-seizure exclusionary rules; repeal of the legal insanity defense; capital punishment as the standard penalty for premeditated murder; repeal of drug laws; greater use of private incentives and contractors to administer criminal justice; more work for prisoners; more prison space; truth-in-sentencing for violent criminals (serve 85 percent or more of sentences); juvenile records available for adult sentencing; restitution actually enforced; and parolees supervised intensely by armed officers. Bidinotto admits that as long as men (and over 90 percent of criminals are male) have the power to choose evil, crime will exist. Yet it can be kept low if the justice system treats them as fully responsible for the harm they do.
To Protect and To Serve is about the cops, not the robbers—but given that its subject is the Los Angeles Police Department, the disparity in author Joe Domanick's mind may not be so great. Domanick has as much admiration for the LAPD and its chieftains as the O.J. Simpson defense team does. He grinds out a relentless and fascinating 400-page indictment of the LAPD: Since World War II, it has been brutal, disrespectful, and unaccountable. The Rodney King beating and the subsequent "insurrection" in South Central Los Angeles were inevitable, Domanick argues.
Despite his tendency to fall into boiler-plate leftism and egregious obscenities, Domanick draws up a surprisingly good case for his indictment. Once the most admired department in the country, the Sgt. Joe Fridays of L.A. robocop efficiency are now demoralized roboscrap. It's a colorful story well told, filled with rogues, and energized by a Lord Acton-like moral: An autonomous, paramilitary bureaucracy must absolutely run amuck. Despite my general admiration for the police, this is a plausible conclusion to a public-choice economist.
Some of the political reforms recently imposed on the LAPD actually make sense—such as an independent board and a police chief with limited terms and vulnerability to dismissal—though Domanick doubts their efficacy. He has no real reform ideas because he spends most of his energy emoting on behalf of the downtrodden. Real reform of the police would begin with Judge Fine's dictum that, "A finely tuned criminal justice system will punish the guilty and leave the innocent unmolested." Following this philosophy requires adjusting incentives to make the personal interest of the police coincide with that social interest.
Just as with misfires in other big city police forces, the LAPD leadership gave cops the wrong incentives—namely, to be aggressive full-time on the street and to focus on the number of arrests as a sign of productivity. Yet the real aim is reduction in crime, which often calls for a soft touch. Rather than garnering blind praise for increased arrest rates, police departments should be financially rewarded for verified reductions in crime, not arrests per se.
And, like all governmental bureaucracies, the police need to be decentralized and made accountable to the people they are supposed to protect. Neighborhoods that hire their own security forces tend to expect and get action when they report crimes, which increases their sense of ownsership and community and helps to further reduce crime. Such incentive-based reforms of the criminal-justice system—with their attendant benefits accruing to the non-criminal population—unfortunately receive too little attention in these books.
Morgan O. Reynolds (email@example.com) is director of the Criminal Justice Center at the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis and professor of economics at Texas A&M University.