A New War on Crime

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A New War on Crime

Steven Lagerfeld

WQ editor Steven Lagerfeld introduces the winter issue.

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In 1975, when political scientist James Q. Wilson published Thinking About Crime, a powerful book that pushed the nation toward a harder line against lawbreakers, I was working with a group of criminals. It was actually a landscape crew, but virtually all of the men on it had been in and out of jail during their lives. When I think about crime, I think about them.

Most of the men were black, some were white, and it was a changing cast, but one part of their stories was always the same. Uneducated, sometimes illiterate, they were single men who lacked the tools and the self-confidence to hope for much better—more than one turned down the chance to be foreman, mostly because they didn’t want to play boss to their friends, but also, I think, because they doubted they could handle the responsibility. A few were glowering, malevolent men whom I carefully gave a wide berth, but others were good and in some ways admirable sorts. All worked incredibly hard—and virtually all of them regularly ran afoul of the law, usually for relatively minor infractions.

Why? Wilson saw that poverty and other social disadvantages were often the root cause of crime, as in the case of my coworkers (though alcohol also seemed to be involved whenever they got into trouble). Other than their fear of jail time, they didn’t have much reason not to break the law. Wilson famously argued for a stronger emphasis on deterrence and punishment, but he also sought to address underlying causes and incentives. It would be “shortsighted,” he said, to raise the costs of crime while leaving the rewards of lawful behavior unchanged.

In the years after Thinking About Crime, America pursued the first part of Wilson’s proposition with far more enthusiasm than it did the second. The get-tough emphasis contributed to the dramatic decline in crime that Joan Petersilia calls one of America’s great success stories. But along with two other contributors to this issue, Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig, she argues that the benefits of that course have been largely exhausted. It is time to rethink crime. In large measure, that means remembering the other half of Wilson’s proposition, and finding new ways to help some of the seven million people who are in and out of America’s criminal justice system break free of the demons that keep them coming back.