The Man With A Take-Some-Prisoners Approach

Assessing the Legacy of James Q. Wilson

Rarely does a public intellectual generate as much admiring disagreement as political scientist James Q. Wilson, who died this year at age 80. At a Zócalo event co-presented by UCLA at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, a panel of social scientists and policymakers discussed Wilson’s intellectual legacy. All had serious disagreements with Wilson. All praised him profusely. And all acknowledged that Wilson’s influence had been vast.

Moderator Mark Kleiman, a public policy analyst at UCLA, began by asking Charlie Beck, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, what influence Wilson had had on Beck’s work. None, was Beck’s answer–at least at first. When Beck joined the LAPD in 1977, “the academic side of why I did what I did was totally lost on me.”

Later, though, Beck came across Wilson’s famous essay “Broken Windows,” co-authored with George L. Kelling for a 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, arguing for the importance of community standards in policing urban neighborhoods. Beck found that much of what he was working on “fell right in line with much of what Jim [Wilson] said.” Beck added that many people misinterpret “broken windows,” thinking of it as referring to a policy of indiscriminate enforcement. It’s not, Beck said. Rather, “broken windows” is about understanding community standards and coming up with policing approaches that uphold those standards.

Pepperdine University economist Angela Hawken noted that several qualities made her former teacher and colleague different from most public intellectuals. For one thing, he was, without feeling the need to entertain anyone, “surprisingly good in the classroom.” He injected students with enthusiasm, partly because “he really wanted to know the answer to the question he was hoping that you would run out and research.” He also had an unusual breadth of knowledge.

But Hawken’s favorite of Wilson’s attributes was his ability to change his mind. “He was really passionate about empirical evidence,” Hawken said, no matter where it pointed, and “even when inquiry led him to interpretations that made him feel uncomfortable in his gut.” That’s why “a man who was such a policy powerhouse would have made such a lousy politician.”

UCLA political scientist Mark Peterson observed that Wilson was, above all, a political scientist, even serving as president of American Political Science Association. No matter what area of policy a student of political science might wish to study–city politics, political organization, regulatory policy–the work of James Q. Wilson was going to be relevant to it. “We didn’t even think of Jim as a conservative political scientist, but as a political scientist who happened to be conservative,” Peterson said.

Wilson also rejected the notion of people as mere creatures of cost-benefit calculation. “He very much believed in community,” Peterson said. “And he was an optimist about human nature.”

Kleiman introduced the topic of the most controversial of Wilson’s legacies: the quintupling of the prison population in the United States, where over 2 million people are now behind bars. Kleiman said that he had first been a supporter of increased prison capacity. But once the prison boom began, he came to feel like the “sorcerer’s apprentice” wondering, “Does this thing have an OFF switch?”

Beck said that there was originally a good case to be made for increased incarceration, but it’s a struggle to know where best to go from here. “I ask that as a question and not as someone who knows the answer,” he added.

Hawken noted that Wilson “never bought the deterrence argument” for prison but felt that “the typical inmate would have committed 15 or 16 crimes that year” had he not been in prison. The problem with this, Hawken said, was that “he failed to identify the age cycle”–i.e. the fact that most criminals get less violent with age.

“Serious crime has about the same age structure as serious basketball,” said Kleiman.

Hawken noted that one of the areas of Wilson’s greatest intellectual discomfort was the question of how to deal with evidence that biology predisposes some people to crime. Ultimately, said Hawken, Wilson’s response was, “We can’t take away the fact that we still get to make decisions.”

Peterson noted that, while the biological dimension to criminal behavior “makes everybody uncomfortable,” what was as interesting to Wilson was the biological dimension to non-criminal behavior. “Why aren’t more people criminals?” said Peterson. “Why do people do the right thing even when no one’s watching?”

The question-and-answer session was lively and varied. One particularly in-depth discussion came in response to a question about Assembly Bill 109, known as the “public safety realignment” in which California is shifting much of the responsibility for incarceration of non-violent offenders from the state to the county level.

“It’s a grand experiment,” said Beck. “I’m not a big fan of it.” While it will be a “huge cost saver for the state,” the costs will hit counties and cities instead. “Will we do a better job than the state?” Beck asked. “I don’t know. We’re trying.” He added, “I hate doing it this way, where we have to learn it on the fly.”

Hawken echoed this view. “We tend to think small and act big” in California, she said. “They should have experimented with small counties first.” She also said that more time is needed before we can effectively measure the program’s effects.

One audience member asked whether we can credit “broken windows” policing for the drop in crime over the past two decades. “It’s been an important piece, not the only piece,” answered Beck. Other factors included better policing through data, the end of the crack epidemic (“That was huge”), and a large reduction in gang crime.

The question of how Wilson fit into current political disputes was often discussed in one form or another. Everyone agreed Wilson was conservative. But none felt that he would have had much in common with movements like the Tea Party today. “Of all his attitudes,” Kleiman said, “hatred of government was not on his list.” And Hawken noted that Wilson had surprised a conservative American Enterprise Institute gathering by saying that one of the best uses of money for crime prevention would be on social programs for single mothers.

Conservative Wilson might have been. Predictable he was not.

Watch full video here.
See more photos here.
Read expert opinions on what scholar or intellectual of the last 50 years has had the greatest impact on the cities we live in today here.
Read Todd Gitlin’s article about James Q. Wilson’s blind spots here.

*Photos by Aaron Salcido.


Add a Comment