Monday, March 14, 2011

James Q. Wilson

Certainly the best thinker on crime and public policy in our lifetime and this profile in the Wall Street Journal is excellent.

An excerpt.

“Notwithstanding his status as America's greatest thinker on crime, punishment and social order, James Q. Wilson's toleration for minor deviancies, his own and other's, is notable.

“In the garage of his light-filled suburban home sits a feral-looking BMW M3—a V8 monster that Mr. Wilson assures me will get a workout on the local roads as soon as the weather improves. If past is prologue, this will provide an opportunity for the white-haired and grandfatherly Mr. Wilson to get to know the local police. Too, he freely admits that his young career, at a crucial point, was advanced by a "white lie"—though, it should hastily be added, not a lie perpetrated by himself.

“Mr. Wilson is most famous for the phrase "broken windows," but he is quick to point out that it didn't originate with him. Philip Zimbardo of Stanford conducted an experiment in which he found that a car parked on a sedate street in a middle-class New York neighborhood would sit unvandalized for days—that is, until Mr. Zimbardo himself came back with a hammer and broke the first window.

"Out of this," says Mr. Wilson, "we coined the phrase 'broken windows,' suggesting public order is a fragile thing, and if you don't fix the first broken window, soon all the windows will be broken."

“By "we," he means that much of the legwork for his now-famous article in the March 1982 issue of the Atlantic Monthly was done by his co-author, George Kelling, then the research director of the Police Foundation. At the foundation, Messrs. Kelling and Wilson had sponsored a series of experiments, one of which, conducted in Newark, N.J, sought to find out if increasing officer foot patrols in high-crime neighborhoods would bring down the crime rate.

“As Mr. Wilson tells it: "We interviewed several police chiefs and they laughed at the idea. 'It's absurd,' they said. We did the experiment. George Kelling ran it. And we found that the police chiefs were exactly right. It didn't drive down the crime rate—but the people loved it. It reintroduced a sense of order. It gave them a sense that the police and the good guys were in control of their neighborhood."

“The resulting article, "Broken Windows," had a "galvanic effect" on police departments around the country. For decades, departments had fielded complaints from the public about broken streetlights and unfilled potholes, only to respond that these weren't "police matters." Now the cops started to see things differently. "The broken windows idea affected the police long before there was any data showing it actually had an impact on crime rates," says Mr. Wilson. "It affected them, I think, because it gave them a way of responding to some of the most common requests they get when they go out and meet with the community in church basements....

“Today, he says, we know a great deal about the genetic and familial factors that help determine why some are criminals and some aren't—a subject covered in his magisterial book, "Crime and Human Nature," written with Richard Herrnstein. We know that, in good times and bad, and in all countries, the majority of crime is committed by a small minority of young men. A landmark study by Marvin Wolfgang, for instance, showed that 6% of 18-year-olds were responsible for 52% of the crime committed by the cohort.”