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James Q. Wilson

We at CJLF are saddened to learn that James Q. Wilson, America's foremost thinker on the subject of crime, has died at the age of 80.  His 1975 book Thinking About Crime was a major turning point away from the disastrous folly that had misguided criminal justice policy in the 1960s and 1970s.  The major drop in crime we have seen from the early 1990s to the present is in substantial part the result of the subsequent change in policy.  Along with George Kelling, he was a pioneer in rethinking policing with their famous "Broken Windows" article.  Professor Wilson served on CJLF's Academic Review Board.  He will be greatly missed.

Former Attorney General Edwin Meese has this post at the Heritage Foundation.

Update:  Heather MacDonald has this article at the City Journal.  She notes Wilson's response to LBJ's notorious crime commission report:

In 1966, a prestigious commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson issued a lengthy report on how the nation should respond to the growing crime wave that was already turning parts of American cities into war zones. What was needed, declared the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, was a massive government effort to eliminate the alleged root causes of crime: poverty and racism. The report relegated policing to a mere after-the-fact response to urban lawlessness; wealth redistribution and social programs would do the real crime-fighting. Unfortunately, the commission established the dominant paradigm for thinking about crime and policing for the next 30 years. Not surprisingly, lawlessness would continue to rise, wreaking havoc on once vibrant cities.

It needn't have turned out that way. Just a few months after the commission had released its tomes, James Q. Wilson, who died last week at 80, published an article in the Public Interest pointing out some previously unnoticed oddities in this blueprint for crime-fighting. Out of 200 recommendations that the commission made, only six actually addressed public safety, Wilson--then in his sixth year teaching political science at Harvard--observed.

Wilson noted the lack of empirical support for the commission's agenda: the advisors recommended, for example, that government fund more social services as an antidote to crime, even though no research showed that those social programs had any effect on behavior. The presidential report called for decreasing prison sentences and for diverting criminals to probation, even though nothing demonstrated that alternatives to incarceration better protected the public than incapacitating offenders in prison.

Had Professor Wilson's message that crime should be fought directly through the police and other criminal justice agencies been acted upon at the time, America's urban future for the next quarter century would have been quite different and New York wouldn't have had to wait for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and New York Police Commissioner William Bratton to demonstrate in the 1990s the extraordinary power of policing to lower crime.


How much suffering did Mr. Wilson have a hand in preventing? My guess is quite a bit. It's nice that there are others to carry the torch.

The preeminent criminologist of our time.

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