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Remembering James Q. Wilson

March 18, 2012 08:07:17 pm
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By Joan Petersilia

James Q. Wilson stock photo

James Q. Wilson, who died in Boston this month at the age of 80, left  a legacy of wisdom—and  clear and prolific scholarship—that has informed almost every area of America’s crime policy. 

Whether you agreed with his positions or not, there was no denying that his writings were a force to be reckoned with on such diverse topics as the death penalty, gun control, drugs, juvenile justice, crime prevention, deterrence, prisons and policing.

He single-handedly changed the American conversation in these and many other substantive areas. Most of the media comments on  Jim’s death mention his famous 1982 ‘Broken Windows’ policing article published in the Atlantic Monthly  with George Kelling. That article argued that if the police stopped ignoring minor law infractions, such as graffiti and public drinking, the rate of more serious crime would go down.

The notion that “untended” environments lead to a public perception that disorder and crime will be tolerated became a touchstone for the move towards community policing in many U.S. cities, including New York and Los Angeles. Interestingly, Jim once told me he hoped he wasn’t mostly remembered for Broken Windows policing, because when he and Mr. Kelling wrote it, he viewed it as just a psychological theory in need of testing.

But that article—like so much else Jim published—turned out to be extraordinarily influential.

Jim didn’t start out in his career to influence crime policy. It just turned out that way. He was born James Quinn Wilson in Denver, but grew up mostly in Long Beach, Calif. He graduated from the University of Redlands near Los Angeles, and then served in the Navy during the Korean War. He subsequently attended graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in political science.

From 1961 to 1987, he taught political science at Harvard. He later taught at UCLA, Pepperdine University, and Boston College. His writings at Harvard established him as one of the nation’s premier political scientists, with a special interest in policing and crime control.

LBJ Crime Commission

His early book, Varieties of Police Behavior (1967), led to an invitation to work with President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Crime and the Administration of Justice. The Commission, appointed in the midst of one of the sharpest increases in crime in the U.S., was charged with identifying how the nation should respond.

It issued a ground-breaking report, The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society,” (1967) which included more than 200 recommendations for curbing crime. What was needed, the report declared, was a massive government effort to eliminate the root causes of crime, poverty and racism. And here began Jim’s major beef with sociologists and criminologists.

A few months after the Commission’s report was published, Jim wrote an article in The Public Interest highly critical of its findings and recommendations. He lambasted the Commission for endorsing recommendations that lacked empirical support. He wrote that while the Commission recommended more funding for social services, there was no rigorous research showing that such programs had any effect on criminal behavior.

The report also called for shorter prison sentences and diverting criminals to probation, although nothing at the time demonstrated that community alternatives better protected the public than incarceration.

As Heather MacDonald observed March 4 in the New York Post, “That article set the pattern for Wilson’s career. Over the next 45 years, he continued to patiently point out when the emperor had no clothes, to exercise skepticism toward conventional wisdom, and to drive his ground-breaking insights from a close attention to the facts on the ground.”

From then on, he was hooked on thinking about crime and crime control measures. He published his first wide-ranging book on the topic in Thinking About Crime (1975). This watershed book established Jim as the nation’s leading conservative on crime policy. This book basically argued that government is ill equipped to remedy the root causes of crime even if those causes could be identified; that criminal activity is largely rational, shaped by the relative risks and rewards offered; and that public policy decisions regarding crime should work to increase the risks and lower the relative rewards of crime, thereby helping to deter it.

He again attacked left-leaning criminologists, writing that they were ideologically pro-treatment in the absence of any supporting evidence.

It was a tour de force, and the book’s chapter on criminology challenged me to become more rigorous in my work.  My first job after graduate school was as a research assistant at The RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California.

As luck (or fate) would have it, Jim was on RAND’s Board of Trustees. I met him for the first time in 1974 and was star-struck from the start (and I never got over it). We published our first article together some years later and, bar none, he was the most brilliant man I have ever met. We worked together off and on over the next 35 years, and he never ceased pushing me to find more convincing evidence for my arguments.

He made me a better researcher and he made criminology a better discipline.

By the time Jim published his Crime and Public Policy book in 1983, his critique of academics criminologists had softened. In fact, he chose to compile that book precisely because he felt that the study of crime had become more scientific and that its findings should be widely disseminated.

A ‘Richer Field’

He wrote:  “In my view, the study of how policies affect crime today is today a far richer and more exciting field than ever before. We have created a more analytical approach to crime policy.”

 In 1995, he invited me to collaborate with him on future volumes of this type and we co-edited Crime (1995), Crime: Public Policies for Crime Control (2004), and Crime and Public Policy (2011). Each time, we assembled the list of authors to invite for these volumes, he would remark at how impressive the field of crime scholars had become.

 I believe that his concluding chapter (entitled “Crime and Public Policy”) in our latest volume together is his very last essay reflecting on crime matters. I was amazed at how his ideas had changed over the years. But I was also amazed at how the ideas that he professed so long ago are no longer so controversial.

Clearly, we influenced him and he influenced us.

Jim believed his greatest contribution to criminology was the book he wrote with his close colleague Richard Herrnstein, Crime and Human Nature: The Definitive Study of the Causes of Crime (1985). He said he wrote this book, which required painstaking and comprehensive research over several years, to learn for himself about crime causation.

"I often write books about problems for which I can't think of a solution," he told a reporter. "The reason I write the book is not because I know what I want to say to the public. I write the book in order to figure out for myself what I think about the subject."

Crime and Human Nature was immediately controversial, for it questioned whether crime resulted from environmental factors, particularly poverty, or individual choice. Wilson and Herrnstein concluded that a propensity toward crime had some biological roots (e.g., gender, age, race, intelligence) which were inherited.

These are delicate issues, and their conclusion ignited debate over the question of “nature versus nurture” in criminal proclivities.

I admit that my leanings come down on the side of “nurture” rather than “nature” in explaining crime. But I greatly respected Jim’s ability to stick to his thinking, regardless of whether his beliefs were offensive to others, or politically incorrect. He was a fearless academic when it came to taking positions he believed in and thought the evidence supported.

Medal of Freedom

Jim was the rare academic who won a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Presenting him with the Medal in 2003, President George W. Bush said, "Whatever his subject, James Q. Wilson writes with intellectual rigor, with moral clarity, to the appreciation of a wide and growing audience."

He was the author of nearly 20 books, and his textbook, American Government (now in its ninth edition with John DiIulio) is more widely used on university campuses than any other textbook on government. He also chaired or served on numerous national commissions, most recently chairing the National Research Council’s Committee on Law and Justice.

Throughout all of the accolades and criticisms, Jim remained steadfast and centered. It is almost impossible to find anyone who ever worked with him or met him who has an unkind word for him.

He was mild-mannered and reserved, bordering on shy. He was thoughtful, never quick to opine. He had high expectations of everyone. He possessed a formidable memory and an encyclopedic knowledge of philosophy, government, and many areas of the social sciences. He never stopped asking hard questions, believing we still didn’t have sufficient answers to the most pressing problems of our time.

One thing that may be surprising to some is that he had a full and rewarding life beyond academia. An avid scuba diver, he co-authored a book called Watching Fishes: Life and Behavior on Coral Reefs (1985) with his wife of nearly 50 years, Roberta. He loved fast cars, and driving the windy Pacific Coast Highway from his home atop the Malibu bluffs to his office at UCLA.

I once drove with him in his Datsun 280z, and I can report that Indy 500 drivers had nothing on him.

Rest in peace, Jim. You may be gone, but you left a legacy—as a mentor, colleague, and true intellectual icon—that will continue to inspire.

Joan Petersilia, Ph.D. is the Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law, Stanford Law School. She is a former director of the Criminal Justice Program at RAND, former Professor of Criminology at UC-Irvine, and former president of the American Society of Criminology. She has spent more than 30 years studying criminal justice policies, and is the author of eleven books on crime control and prisoner reintegration. She welcomes comments from readers.

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