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InsiderOnline Blog: March 2012

James Q. Wilson, R.I.P.

The scholarly work of James Q. Wilson, who died Friday at age 80, helped revive the common sense ideas that criminals should be punished and that police should maintain order, ideas credited with helping reduce crime in America beginning in the early 1990s. His 1975 book, Thinking About Crime, argued for swifter and more certain punishment as a deterrent to crime. His 1982 Atlantic article, “Broken Windows,” co-authored with George Kelling, argued that in their efforts to become better at solving crimes, police departments had neglected their order-maintenance functions. That shift, they argued, contributed to the crime wave of the 1960s and 1970s.

For Kelling and Wilson, maintaining good order meant minimizing loitering, rowdy behavior, public drinking, panhandling, solicitation, graffiti, litter, and abandoned property (i.e., broken windows). Such disorder, the authors argued, told criminals where violent crimes were more likely to go unchecked. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his police chief William Bratton put the “Broken Windows Theory” into practice beginning in 1994. Murder rates in the city fell by more than half by 1999 and continued to drop throughout the next decade.

President George W. Bush awarded Wilson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003. George Will sums up Wilson contributions this way: “Every contemporary writer about American society and politics knows how Mel Torme must have felt being a singer in Frank Sinatra’s era. Everyone else has competed for the silver medal. Wilson won the gold.” (“Wilson Was a Prophet for the Ages,” Columbus Dispatch, March 6).

For more on James Q. Wilson’s life and work, see these tributes: “The Sinatra of Social Science,” The American Enterprise Institute, January 6; “A Man of Reason,” Heather MacDonald, City Journal, March 4; “James Q. Wilson’s Life-Saving Work,” Thomas Sowell, National Review, March 6.

Posted on 03/06/12 06:42 PM by Alex Adrianson

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