In memoriam: James Q. Wilson

A man of great intellect, generous spirit, and tremendous integrity leaves behind a hole that will be hard to fill.

James Q. Wilson died today, and the world is poorer for it.

I never had a course with him, but his book Thinking About Crime, which I read long before I had any professional interest in the topic, awoke me from my dogmatic liberal slumber on issues of social control. That’s not to say that I always agreed with him; there will be time enough later to rehearse our disagreements.

The things that made Jim special – beyond his massive intellect, wide reading, and graceful, accurate prose – were his generosity of spirit and his deep moral and intellectual seriousness. At a time when he was very much committed to the Red team, he helped spread my ideas despite what he knew were my strong Blue loyalties. (Unsolicited, he gave When Brute Force Fails, which is largely a rebuttal to Thinking About Crime, its best blurb.) Jim wanted to get things right, even when that meant acknowledging that he had earlier been wrong: a tendency not common among academics, or among participants in policy debates.

Recently I was asked to sign on to an amicus brief in a case involving the constitutionality of imposing life imprisonment without parole on those who were legally juveniles at the time of their offending behavior. The argument of the brief was straightforward: legislatures had passed juvenile LWOP under the influence of the idea that the 1980s had seen the rise of a new generation of “juvenile super-predators,” whose propensity to violence put the nation at risk of a bloodbath once they became adults unless they were kept behind bars. In fact, the upsurge in deadly violence by adolescents turned out to be merely a side-effect of the crack markets; instead of soaring, violent crime fell sharply. But the laws passed while the theory was in vogue remain in force.

Jim had been one of the promoters of the “super-predator” theory, though he was not its originator. When I glanced down the list of signatories for the amicus I found, at the bottom, “James Q. Wilson.”

I can only hope that the Court will understand the significance of that name for the status of the theory. Its significance for the moral stature of Jim Wilson is fairly obvious.

Alas, after they made Jim, they broke the mold.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

21 thoughts on “In memoriam: James Q. Wilson”

  1. I was waiting for you to write about this after I saw it in the news this morning. Definitely a sad loss. We need men and women of his moral and intellectual character more than ever these days.

  2. The remarkable thing about Jim was the independence of his thinking.

    I am not sure I have ever met any other academic thinker on crime who does not play on the “Blue team”. It was Jim alone against the entire academic conventional wisdom. And that left the two teams roughly balanced.


  3. Jim also deserves admiration for being actively engaged in the real world of public policy and not just theorizing about it. His ideas shaped not just academic articles, but public policies that made community life better in this country. And as for his academic work, Jon hits the nail on the head: Everything Wilson did was held to a higher standard of proof because he was not a liberal…and it stood up most of the time anyway.

  4. Mark — Good sentiments. Even though I didn’t agree with most of his many writings, I found him very personable in the two occasions where I had to speak with him at length. And, although few will mention it in the top five writings, at the time that I was doing work on prosecutorial decision-making and police-prosecutor relations, The Investigators was a very insightful help.

  5. I am pleased to hear that he renounced the super predator nonsense. I generally believe that his work, especially the short article broken windows ended up being the philosophical underpinning of an extraordinary expansion into mass incarceration in the 80s. Unfortunately that now means we are the most incarcerating society on the planet, undermining our freedoms, creating broken communities and frankly spending a great deal more than we need to. He seemed pretty much fine with that so I haven’t been all that sympathetic towards him over the years. So it sounds like I should probably do him the justice of actually tackling a few of his books (the ones on non-profits and bureaucracies interest me most these days) and trying to parse out the valuable from the dross.

    1. “Broken Windows” is an argument about a causal pathway that leads to serious crime and social breakdown in troubled communities. It’s not, as is often said, a case for arresting everyone committing minor crimes. The original Atlantic article actually talks about more or less consensual local norm-setting among police and offenders, with arrest used only in the rare instances when those norms are broken. All that was lost when the (in my view very important) core ideas were lost in bumper-sticker sloganeering about “zero tolerance” and the like.

      The country’s move to mass incarceration was well under way when Wilson and Kelling published and was driven much more by legislative and sentencing changes than any shifts in policing. New York City – the national examplar of heavy policing, very large increases in misdemeanor arrests, and profligate use of stop-and-frisk and attendent moves like street marijuana enforcement – has actually seen substantial decreases in both prison and jail populations (the very large reduction in the number of inmates the city sends to state prisons has driven one of the largest national statewide declines).

      “Broken Windows” has come to mean some pretty appalling things in practice in some places, but that wasn’t and isn’t Jim’s fault. (And the rest of the larger intellectual community working on these issues has been none too effective at voicing the distinctions between the original framing and what it was turned into.)

      1. Broken Windows was published in 1982. I would say that it was indeed past the point where rehabilitation had fallen out of favor -for some good reasons- and strong punitive and incapacitation element which included mass incarceration had begun to take hold but well before the major criminal justice acts of the Reagan and Bush years that drove mass incarceration. I agree that Broken Windows in and of itself is a somewhat innocuous article but was certainly a part of the broader background used by others and you’re right, it really is different from the concept of zero tolerance that it became associated with (William Bennett and John Walters I’m looking at you). However, they did get associated and I don’t particularly recall Wilson really pushing back on the uses of Broken Windows theory all that hard. But frankly it’s been years since I really engaged with this material and it may just be my failing memory and it’s not my intention to speak ill of Wilson. In fact, I’m considering that it might very well be worth my effort to get reengaged with his writings.

  6. Interesting you bring up the “super-predator” theory Mark from the 1980s and 1990s; I remember when there were theories that crime would skyrocket because of youth crime in the 1990s and naughts.

    Question: Did any academics, criminologists, or public policy analysts predict the massive drop in crime over the last 20 years?


  7. Has enough time passed? I hope so. I consider Wilson to be a dishonest polemicist. In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, he wrote in the Los Angeles times (20 Apr 2007):

    Leading British, French, German, Italian and Spanish newspapers have blamed the United States for listening to Charlton Heston and the National Rifle Assn. […]
    Let’s take a deep breath and think about what we know about gun violence and gun control. […]
    If we want to guess by how much the U.S. murder rate would fall if civilians had no guns we should begin by realizing — as criminologists Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins have shown — that the non-gun homicide rate in this country is three times higher than the non-gun homicide rate in England.

    For historical and cultural reasons, Americans are a more violent people than the English, even when they can’t use a gun.

    This fact sets a floor below which the murder rate won’t be reduced even if, by some constitutional or political miracle, we became gun-free.

    Wilson does not say what the floor is, even though he presents other numbers in his op-ed. He misleads by citing a statistic that could have a large of small impact. (e.g If there are 10 non-gun homicides in the U.S. and 1 in England – that’s 10 times higher! – but it would be meaningless next to thousands of gun homicides.) He makes the empty claim that Americans are more violent so that he can dismiss gun ownership as a relevant factor.

    Wilson cannot be trusted, especially in his area of “expertise”.

    1. Meant to say If there are 10 non-gun homicides in England and 1 in the U.S. – to follow Wilson’s point. But either way, citing ratios of X in two locations as a way of trumping ratio Y is lying with statistics.

    2. Wilson’s point – that America’s nongun homicide rate is substantial and in and of itself larger than many developed countries’ total homicide rate – is an example of that vexing species known technically as a “fact.” He is entirely correct here, in one aspect of a larger argument addressing his conviction that gun control is futile. Your desire for more documentation does not justify a charge of dishonesty (the nongun share of overall US homicide in fact routinely reaches nearly 40%).

      As a general rule, assessing the quality of anybody’s thought on the basis of op-ed pieces (and, even more, press accounts) should be handled with care. Op-ed pieces are short, intended to convey large ideas and themes telegraphically, and are frequently edited without their authors’ review or even prior knowledge. Demanding of them the same standards we expect of longer forms is tendentious.

      (Wilson was wrong, on the other hand, in the op-ed piece’s statement that it’s illegal to own machine guns. With the right Title II license, one can own very nearly anything. Many do, and the last time I checked not a single one had ever been involved in a crime. More support for his key point that firearms in ordinary folks’ hands are not much of an issue.)


      1. You are telling me that the nongun share of US homicide is nearly 40%. Wilson did not state that. He made a totally deceptive claim about relative rates, which is of absolutely no value. That’s being dishonest.

  8. Omigod! I just heard about James Q. Wilson’s death now. He was so protean that I never particularly thought of him as a specialist in crime–although of course he was.

    I generally believe that social science is an extension of politics by other means. Wilson is the reason I put the word “generally” in the previous sentence. He could be as wingnutty as anybody when writing about–say–same-sex marriage. But when writing scientifically, he was nothing but clear reason.

    His book “Bureaucracy” is one of the very few books on the world of affairs that changed my life. It ranks in my personal pantheon up with “Reflections on the Revolution in France” or “The Prince.”

  9. Like you, apparently, I am originally from Baltimore. Like you I am an admirer of Wilson. Unlike you I had the good fortune to take classes with him and write a dissertation under his supervision. I agree wholeheartedly: one always had to respect Jim even when not voting the way he voted. That willingness to change positions in the face of new evidence is a lesson to us all.

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