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Contra “Root Causes”

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Contra “Root Causes”

What the work of James Q. Wilson can teach us about the fight over criminal justice today Summer 2021
Politics and law
Public safety

Few scholars influenced American government in the twentieth century more profoundly than James Q. Wilson. Presidents consulted him for his expertise on everything from crime to drug abuse to bioethics, and his prolific writings—on bureaucracy, urban governance, and even coral-reef fish—often shaped public debate. President George W. Bush called Wilson “the most influential political scientist in America since the White House was home to President Woodrow Wilson” when, in 2003, he awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his accomplishments.

Wilson, who would have been 90 this year (he died in 2012), was by training a political scientist. But it is his contributions to the study of crime for which he is best remembered, and they are most relevant to the present moment. The popular press often describes him as the originator, along with the Manhattan Institute’s George Kelling, of the “Broken Windows” theory of public safety (both Kelling and Wilson were regular City Journal contributors), earning him praise from some for the great crime decline—and blame from others for the rise of mass incarceration.

It is within the context of Wilson’s ideas that contemporary debates about criminal justice are inescapably situated. Our disputes about “defunding the police” and “decarceration,” about “stop and frisk” and Broken Windows, about how punitive the criminal-justice system should be—all can be traced back to the revolution in criminal-justice policy that Wilson helped inaugurate in the 1980s and 1990s. The debates are about the efficacy of policing and prisons but also about the philosophical justifications for whom we punish and why.

Animating the recent wave of progressive reform is a philosophical account of why people commit crime. The criminal, the reasoning goes, is a product of deprivation, compelled by poverty, inequality, and racism to commit offenses that he would not have done otherwise. This “root-causes” theory contends that policing and incarceration are, at best, Band-Aids for controlling crime—and, at worst, active contributors to the more fundamental drivers of offending. Advocates of defunding the police believe that rerouting money spent on policing to welfare, health care, and even reparations for slavery would target the root causes of crime, reducing the need for prisons and police in the first place.

Though it has attained new currency in recent years, this theory is not, in any meaningful sense, new—Wilson spent much of his career arguing against versions of it. It is thus worth revisiting his work to ask how we should respond to the resurgence of the root-causes approach. Wilson’s writings suggest three criticisms: that root causes are no more important than non–root causes; that inequality and racism are neither the only, nor even the most important, root causes; and that the existence of root causes enhances, rather than obviates, the value of punishment. Reengaging with Wilson makes clear how unoriginal our current debate is: we have done all this before, and the root-causes theorists are as mistaken now as they were then.

A Times Square murder scene, 1964: an unprecedented rise in crime during the decade drew Wilson’s scholarly attention to the issue of policing. (BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES)

The postwar decades ought to have been, by the root-causes account, an era of unparalleled peace. A combination of material abundance, an expanding welfare state, and a relatively therapeutic criminal-justice system should have meant a retreat of crime.

In the years after World War II, the American economy boomed, with GDP regularly rising by as much as 6 percent annually. Poverty fell more or less continuously from 1967 through the early 1980s, thanks both to the robust economy and expanded government welfare benefits. The Civil Rights Act outlawed explicit labor-market discrimination, increasing opportunity for black Americans and helping include them in the expanding prosperity.

Rather than focus on incapacitation, the criminal-justice system of this era was geared toward reshaping offenders’ behavior. The reigning norm was what sociologist David Garland called “penal welfarism,” which held that “penal measures ought, where possible, to be rehabilitative interventions rather than negative, retributive punishments.” Policy increasingly shifted responsibility from criminal-justice professionals to “experts” in rehabilitation. Criminal justice, writes Garland, “became the territory of probation officers, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, child-guidance experts, educationalists, and social reformers of all kinds.” These reformers saw the system not as a way to deter or control crime directly but instead to undo society’s harmful influence on the criminal—a therapeutic approach that often goes hand in hand with root-causes thinking.

During the postwar era, the punitive components of the criminal-justice system withered. The incarceration rate declined between 1961 and 1976; by 1981, murderers averaged a sentence of just five years, while rapists got 3.4. Earl Warren’s Supreme Court bolstered the rights of offenders in cases like Miranda and Gideon—changes that, regardless of any beneficial effects, necessarily reduced the justice system’s efficiency.

The economic and penological conditions of roughly half a century ago were as close as one could get to the ideal of today’s reformers. Everyone assumed that the combination of favorable economic conditions and a rehabilitation- and rights-focused criminal-justice system should make crime a nonissue. So what happened?

“Crime soared,” Wilson wrote in a 1973 Atlantic essay that later became the first chapter of his 1975 book Thinking About Crime. “It did not just increase a little; it rose at a faster rate and to higher levels than at any time since the 1930s and, in some categories, to higher levels than any experienced in this century.”

This explosion of crime, much of it violent, was a brutal blow to the postwar criminal-justice consensus. The upward trend would not abate for decades. In 1960, the FBI counted just shy of 161 violent crimes per 100,000 Americans. Over the next decade, that number would more than double, then nearly double again, to just under 600 by 1980. Murder doubled between 1960 and 1970, reaching a level at which it would remain until the mid-1990s.

Responding to the beginning of the surge, President Lyndon Johnson commissioned a 19-member panel to study the American criminal-justice system, in order to enable a “war on crime” like his War on Poverty. The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice—sometimes known as the Katzenbach Commission, after its chairman, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach—appointed, among others, Harvard professor of government James Q. Wilson to serve as an advisor to one of its task forces.

The commission’s 1965 report, “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society,” offered modernizing proposals such as the use of separate police radio bands and the emergency hotline that eventually became 911. But it was, as Wilson put it in a critical essay in The Public Interest that autumn, strangely silent on the topic of how actually to prevent crime. The report offered, he wrote, “no ‘solution’ to the problem and it provides no convenient answers to the question of what we might do short of solving it.” The report’s numerous recommendations included just six specific proposals for reducing crime; Wilson himself oversaw the inclusion of five of them.

The commission’s shortage of answers, Wilson wrote, was due in part to then-limited evidence about the efficacy of anticrime policies. Because the commission believed that more direct policies wouldn’t work, the lack of evidence gave it a convenient excuse to retreat to the root-causes notion: “perhaps the major conclusion of the Commission . . . is that basically crime can only be reduced by fundamental social changes.” Deterrence and incapacitation were passé; penal welfarism became the conventional wisdom in thinking about crime.

Criminology had focused on root causes because it neither found nor looked for evidence that more proximate causes of crime had been addressed. But the crime eruption that prompted the commission’s formation was already showing the limits of this approach. In fact, pessimism about the benefit of targeting root causes to solve social problems was growing. In 1966, for example, sociologist James Coleman challenged the idea that the main barrier to academic achievement was funding, contradicting the view that educational underperformance is largely due to poverty. And in 1974, Robert Martinson’s classic Public Interest article on the efficacy of prison rehabilitation (“What Works?”) reached a similarly downbeat conclusion, arguing that penal welfarism was doing little to curb re-offending. And the crime numbers kept rising.

If society could not be improved by the management of root causes, then a different tack was needed.

“If society could not be improved by the management of root causes, then a different tack was needed.”

I did not . . . have in 1966–1968 empirically supported policy advice to offer statesmen dealing with crime,” Wilson wrote a decade after his service to the Katzenbach Commission. “What I then realized . . . was that many of those seated about me, urging in the strongest tones various ‘solutions’ to crime, were speaking out of ideology, not scholarship.” This insight comes near the conclusion of an essay originally published in 1974 in Commentary and then again as the eponymous chapter in Thinking About Crime. Though less well remembered than Wilson’s writing on Broken Windows, the essay lays the groundwork for his rhetorical defeat of the root-causes position that had blinded criminal-justice policy.

What actually causes crime? The “social science view,” Wilson wrote, saw crime as “the result of poverty, racial discrimination, and other privations,” implying that the right response was “to attack its ‘root causes’ with programs that end poverty, reduce discrimination, and meliorate privation”—the same arguments being made today. The conversation basically remained about the “fundamental” causes of criminal offending.

It is one thing for academics to debate what causes criminality; but for policymakers, such questions are a red herring—especially since it may be much easier for policy to influence causes more proximate (and less “root”) to the problem in question. “It is the failure to understand this point that leads statesman and citizen alike to commit the causal fallacy—to assume that no problem is adequately addressed unless its causes are eliminated,” Wilson wrote. “If we regard any crime-prevention or crime-reduction program as defective because it does not address the ‘root causes’ of crime, then we shall commit ourselves to futile acts that frustrate the citizen while they ignore the criminal.” This point about causality may seem technical, but it was the philosophical groundwork on which Wilson erected his counter to root-causes policies. What is needed, he wrote in the New York Times, is instead “a sober view of man and his institutions that would permit reasonable things to be accomplished, foolish things abandoned, and utopian things forgotten.”

This was, for instance, why Wilson supported dramatically expanding incarceration—not because more prisoners and longer jail sentences necessarily deter crime (that effect is still debated today) but because incapacitation mechanically lowers the crime rate by removing would-be offenders from the streets. Why those offenders commit crimes, or how (or even if) we can rehabilitate them, is, in this context, beside the point: if our goal is to lower the crime rate, then incarcerating people works.

Similarly, Wilson’s work on Broken Windows policing can be seen as an application of the “what works” alternative over the root-causes approach. Casual readers of Wilson and Kelling often understand Broken Windows essentially to mean quality-of-life policing—targeting small crimes so that they don’t spill over into big ones. But what Wilson and Kelling were more precisely saying in their original Atlantic essay is that police are only part of the equation, an extension and bulwark of the community’s natural capacity to control crime. “The essence of the police role in maintaining order is to reinforce the informal control mechanisms of the community itself,” the authors observed. “The police cannot, without committing extraordinary resources, provide a substitute for that informal control.”

This theory is entirely agnostic about the root causes of the crime level in a given community. Rather than suggest that certain neighborhoods are more or less crime-ridden because of their socioeconomic advantage or disadvantage, the Broken Windows approach treats crime as a problem per se, and authorizes the community to respond to it, with the police as the key institution enabling that response.

Prisons and policing were the two major tools of the crime-fighting revolution of the 1980s and 1990s, which finally stopped the crime wave. Their mobilization and the retreat of penal welfarism owe largely to Wilson’s influence.

As his work helped bring about a nationwide crime turnaround, Wilson started to turn his attention to the more fundamental causal questions that he had initially dismissed but that fascinated him as a social scientist: What makes people commit crime? What, if anything, can be done to make them stop? The resultant body of scholarship, in its own way, engages the logic of root causes, offering the reader another kind of rebuttal to progressive ideas about crime.

Crime and Human Nature, Wilson’s 1985 tome on the causes of crime, was born of a nearly decade-long collaboration with his Harvard colleague Richard Herrnstein (later coauthor of The Bell Curve). The pair had begun teaching a course together about crime policy but had become increasingly convinced that they could not address the topic without asking why some people commit crimes and others do not.

Toward the book’s end, Wilson and Herrnstein outline two common theories. One, the “calculator” approach, emphasizes crime as a rational response to incentives. The other they call the “Rousseauian” attitude: humans are naturally good, so any evil they do results from society’s corrupting influence. The Rousseauian notion leads to an emphasis on the root causes of crime: “family practices, school failings, and economic disadvantage,” which are considered more important than individual behavior.

Yet, as Wilson and Herrnstein argue, crime is not merely a product of nurture but of nature and nurture combined. Sex, age, IQ, brain chemistry, personality, family structure, community conditions, employment, substance abuse—all play some role in the predisposition to offend. We can work to change society’s institutions, but if the institutions don’t strive to offset the individual’s inherent propensity to offend, that exercise is pointless.

Wilson and Herrnstein propose a third position, which they call Aristotelian: existence in society, far from a corrupting influence, is the natural state of humans. Societally imposed circumstances—poverty but also media and cultural norms around violence, for instance—can increase one’s inclination to commit crimes, though the relationship is more complicated than direct cause and effect. But biological factors also determine propensity to offend, and are, in Wilson and Herrnstein’s judgment, often more influential as a root cause. Society is supposed to shape natural factors through virtuous education—teaching the strong to be kind, the impulsive to have self-control, and so on. The Rousseauian emphasis on society’s harms is incomplete, as only social institutions can inculcate the habits, practices, and virtues necessary to offset an inborn inclination to offend.

Wilson would spend the next several years articulating a theory of such virtues, culminating in 1993’s The Moral Sense, where he argues for a scientifically based moral intuitionism: humans have a weak but real moral sense, “a small candle flame . . . flickering and sputtering in the strong winds of power and passion.” The nurturing of this flame is as important in preventing criminality as are any changes to society at large. In this, Wilson gave another tool to the critic of the root-causes approach, at least as traditionally understood. Just as, from a policymaker’s perspective, root causes may be less important than proximate causes, some root causes are not necessarily more important than others. The Rousseauians’ exclusive focus on the negative effects of environment deemphasizes the habits of character that lead people to commit crimes—as well as the importance of society in shaping that character for the better.

Police patrol a shopping district in Queens, 2021: Wilson argued that “the essence of the police role in maintaining order is to reinforce the informal control mechanisms of the community itself.” (KATHY WILLENS/AP PHOTO)

Frequently at work in Wilson’s writings is the age-old question of determinism. How can a social scientist’s way of thinking about the world, which implies that behavior is biologically and socially determined, be reconciled with the morality of punishment, which requires responsibility and therefore, arguably, free will? Proponents of the root-causes position often argue that because criminality is a product of deprivation, it is not morally justifiable to mete out punishment. How can we hold accountable someone who was only doing what a lifetime of hardship taught him to do?

Wilson’s solutions to this quandary are also useful to opponents of the root-causes theory. In particular, they help us articulate a causal account of crime that still permits—and, indeed, accents the necessity of—punishment. At several points in his career, Wilson advanced a kind of compatibilism—the belief that free will and determinism can coexist. As far back as Thinking About Crime, he rejected strict determinism: “Since not every person who does poorly in school becomes either angry or criminal, we cannot say that school-failure determines crime, and thus we need not abandon our view—essential for the operation of any system of law—that behavior is in some sense freely chosen.”

He offers a more substantive account in 1997’s Moral Judgment, a slim book confronting the idea that abuse and other exceptional circumstances should legally mitigate punishment. The term “cause,” he argued, is ambiguous. “We recognize that some human action, like the patellar reflex or the epileptic seizure, is caused by processes over which a person has no control.” Similarly, we say that human behavior is “caused by the interaction of genetic endowment, social learning, and available incentives.” But we don’t mean the same thing because we also pass moral judgments as to whether a person “knew better” or “ought to have known better” than to act as he did. In other words, just because our decision making is informed by a set of natural and socially determined inputs does not mean that we lack the freedom to choose. That people who come from the best possible circumstances still commit crimes shows as much—their will is informed by their circumstances but clearly not exhausted by them.

This all reflects Wilson’s Aristotelian notion that society shapes natural tendencies and that both inform the will. It is from this position that his case for punishment flows. Root-causes proponents often argue that we should weaken criminal sanctions that hold people to a standard unwarranted by their difficult backgrounds. But the Aristotelian position implies that the criminal law ought not just react to malign behaviors. It is itself an input into people’s decision making.

Wilson outlined this idea in, among other places, “The Future of Blame,” the last essay he wrote for National Affairs, which touched on the question of how to square criminal sanction with the emerging science of genetics. He asks his reader to imagine a young man, who, because of his sex and age, is more prone to crime than an older woman. The man has a “steeper hill” to climb in complying with the criminal law, and therefore some would suggest that he should be considered less responsible, and so punished less, if he does indeed offend. Wilson counters that the opposite is true. Because the young man “must climb the steeper hill, he is in greater need of the incentive and guidance the law will provide.” A higher cost to failure is more likely to induce him to the right behavior, while having no bearing on the older woman, far less likely to offend.

The law, in other words, is not merely responsive to crime. It is, at worst, a part of the “calculator’s” incentive structure, or, more holistically, it is part of the way that we shape the moral sense of the human social animal. The law is a teacher; punishment is the means by which it does its teaching.

Today the pendulum of criminal justice has swung back. Decades of falling crime rates, thanks in large part to the strategies Wilson pioneered, mean that half the country is too young to remember the bad old days. Politicians, activists, and young people contend that because crime rates have been so low, we can afford to decarcerate, depolice, and deprosecute—giving up, in other words, the tools that got us here. Root-causes thinking is back. “Progressive prosecutors” like Baltimore’s Marilyn Mosby and San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin harp on it. Editorialists dredge up the false wisdom of the 1960s and regurgitate it as though it’s something new.

This is, in part, a normal process. As the historian of crime Eric Monkonnen noted, crime-control measures tend to relax as crime falls, precipitating the next crime upswing and thereby perpetuating the cycle. Public sentiment around crime waxes and wanes, too. Support for the death penalty, for example, neatly tracks the violent crime rate, suggesting that a sense of urgency drives the public’s general level of punitiveness.

But variables like public support for tough-on-crime policies are also influenced by public debates on those policies. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow—despite all its flaws and inaccuracies—arguably ignited the current craze for “criminal-justice reform.” The uncritical acceptance of root-causes thinking, too, is plainly motivating real policy changes, often with deadly consequences.

Revisiting Wilson’s work on the topic, then, is more than just an intellectual exercise. For those seeking to defend his legacy—and that of the great crime decline in particular—such a defense must be staged rhetorically as well as at the ballot box. In making these arguments again, who better to turn to than the dean of American criminology himself?

Top Photo: Wilson in 1984, shortly after he and George Kelling wrote their famous article developing the Broken Windows theory of public order (ASAR STUDIOS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

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