James Q. Wilson’s Thinking About Crime

I ordered Thinking About Crime, a once-influential assemblage of the writings of famed political scientist James Q. Wilson, before the brutal killing of an unarmed, restrained black man by a white police officer toppled COVID-19 from atop its pillar in the public imagination, replacing it with a conversation – or perhaps more accurately an unrelenting scream – about crime, policing and social justice that as I write has resulted in promises to defund and even abolish police departments in major America cities. Wilson’s title, therefore, is proper, because the sad truth is crime elicits very little real thought, and a great deal of emotion, and this despite the fact that few public policies can be as consequential or touch so directly upon ultimate questions of morality and value as criminal law and enforcement.

Wilson was also well positioned to conduct this conversation (writing, as he was, in the 1970s and 1980s), for his credentials as a data and policy analyst are the stuff of legend: he taught political science for over 25 years at Harvard, a further ten at UCLA, and nine more at Pepperdine; directed the Joint Center for Urban Studies at Harvard and MIT; and served on two separate presidential advisory boards, one on bioethics and another on foreign intelligence. This can hardly be overstated: no single person had a greater impact on the government’s understanding of, or response to, crime in the 1970s and 1980s then James Q. Wilson. It was Wilson (together with co-author George Kelling) who coined the term “broken windows” policing, in an Atlantic essay that still bears reading, and it was Wilson’s policies and suggestions that former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani implemented and to this day credits for the dramatic reduction in New York’s crime rate – and, let us not neglect to mention, a corresponding drop in the number of lives cut short by homicide.

For my part, I was enamoured of Wilson’s approach from his opening sentence: “The common theme of the essays that make up this book is 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.” That most fundamental of questions lies at the heart of our public response to crime, so much so that we can also intuit, from the policies of decades past, what vision of human nature held sway in any given era. Do criminals commit crime from some moral or character defect, or from a lack of opportunity? Does the justice system have an obligation to seek retribution – for the aggrieved and for society – or ought its primary concern be rehabilitation? Should the role of the police be proactive, centred on maintaining law and order in a given community, or reactive, focused on responding to crimes and capturing criminals? Wilson wades into each of these difficult subjects with the confidence of a man intimately familiar with the data; every chapter –indeed, almost every paragraph – will impress upon his readers just how much work has been done studying crime and punishment in America, and what conclusions can and cannot be responsibly drawn from this research.

Rather than seek to summarize the entire book and its myriad arguments, I will present some of Wilson’s findings in as much detail as I can muster. The first of these is preeminently a question of human nature, and therefore human biology, because it is verifiable worldwide, both in the present and in the past: crime is overwhelmingly a young, male phenomenon, and consequently there is a strong correlation between the number of young men (particularly single and childless young men) in any given time or place and the crime rate. At the time of this book’s first publication in 1975, for example, America was in the midst of a decade-long increase in crime that made “law and order” the top priority among voters. In the years between 1961 and 1972, we learn, “the FBI’s property crime rate had doubled, and the violent crime rate had increased 2.5 times.” No doubt there are many possible causes for this dramatic spike in crime, but it was made possible, first and foremost, by the “baby boom” of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which created an outsized youth population:

In 1950, there were about twenty-four million persons aged fourteen to twenty-four; by 1960 that had increased only slightly to just under twenty-seven million. But during the next ten years it increased by over thirteen million persons. Every year for ten years, the number of young people increased by 1.3 million. That ten-year increase was greater than the growth in the young segment of the population for the rest of the century put together. During the first two years of the decade of the 1960s, we added more young persons (about 2.6 million) to our population than we had added in any preceding ten years since 1930.

That is a staggering increase, and its consequences were perhaps magnified by a decline in America’s ability to socialize and integrate these newcomers in a positive manner into society, for though the 1960s were a period of economic growth and falling unemployment, the youth unemployment rate rose rapidly.

During a decade when the unemployment rate generally declined, the unemployment rate for persons sixteen to nineteen years of age actually increased, so that whereas the young made up only one-sixth of the unemployed in 1961, they accounted for more than one-quarter of it by 1971. In one year, 1963, the number of unemployed persons aged sixteen to nineteen increased by one-fourth to 17 percent. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics was later to write, “In 1963, the relative position of teenagers began to deteriorate markedly.” Whereas before 1963 their unemployment was never more than two or three times greater than that of adults, after then it was at least four times greater, and by 1968 was more than five times greater.

The 1960s likewise saw the beginnings of an unrelenting increase in the number of extramarital births, and therefore a decline in the strength of America’s families and the influence they could assert over their sons. And both these factors – rising youth unemployment and illegitimacy rates – were particularly pronounced in America’s nonwhite communities, who would likewise suffer disproportionately from the rising crime and violence.

One aspect of Wilson’s investigation I found particularly fascinating was his discussion of “individual offence rates,” and how these relate to criminal justice policy. Imagine, for example, that in a given city 10,000 violent crimes are committed in a single year. If those 10,000 crimes were committed by 10,000 different people, or 5,000 different people, than the comparative advantage of locking up any single offender is very small. But what if there are wildly disparate rates of offence? What if, for example, some particularly violent individuals are responsible for dozens or even hundreds of crimes each year? All of a sudden, the comparative advantage to society of locking up a single offender rises dramatically. Wilson takes us on a tour of the available studies (as of the time of publishing), and the results were, to me, quite shocking. One study, conducted by following 624 California felons for three years after their release, found “that the average California prisoner had committed about fourteen serious crimes per year during each of the three years he was free.” The same group, in a later and larger study involving 2,200 former inmates from California, Michigan and Texas, found averages of 53 robberies per year from the California group and an astonishing 77 from the Michigan cohort. Even more telling, however, was the statistical distribution, which was so skewed as to make speaking of “averages” almost farcical:

For example, the median number of burglaries committed by the inmates in the three states was about 5 a year, but the 10 percent of the inmates who were the highest-rate offenders committed an average of 232 burglaries a year. The median number of robberies was also about 5 a year, but the top 10 percent of offenders committed an average of 87 a year. As Peter W. Greenwood, one of the members of the Rand group, put it, incarcerating one robber who was among the top 10 percent in offense rates would prevent more robberies than incarcerating eighteen offenders who were at or below the median.

In a later chapter, Wilson seeks to isolate the characteristics of a “high-rate offender,” and finds that they tend to share some characteristics in common: they are men between the ages of 18 and 35; they were first arrested at a very young age; they regularly abuse alcohol or take heroin; they have already served a lengthy prison sentence, and have at least one violent offence on the record.

In cutting short my review here, I am doing Wilson and his book a disservice, for there are several further sections – on the influence of heroin on crime, say, or the record of prison rehabilitation programs – that are equally penetrating, equally insightful, and equally demonstrative of his familiarity with the data. These chapters also showcase his broader appreciation of the moral and ethical questions surrounding crime and punishment, and his deep concern that the conversation about these weighty topics be conducted with the full weight of the evidence available to all parties. Surveying the present state of the national conversation on crime and policing, and taking stock of the politicians and pundits charged with conducting it, I can only say that Wilson’s absence will be sorely felt.