To the Editor:
Having labored more than 30 years for strict gun control . . . (I helped organize the National Council for a Responsible Firearms Policy and was its executive director from 1968 to its dissolution in 1989), . . . I was more than disappointed to find that James Q. Wilson [“What to do About Crime,” September 1994] made only passing reference to the highly destructive weapons he describes as “almost certainly contributors to the lethality of American violence.”
Almost certainly? Guns in the wrong hands are certainly, absolutely, significant contributors to the lethality of American violence. More than shying from such categorical certitude, Mr. Wilson shuns the whole policy issue by claiming “there is no politically or legally feasible way to reduce the stock of guns now in private possession to the point where their availability to criminals would be much affected.” Nor does he see any way of curtailing availability to criminals without denying law-abiding people “a means of protecting themselves long before criminals lost a means of attacking them.” While there is no way absolutely to deny criminals access to firearms (just as there is no way absolutely to prevent violence), politically and legally feasible ways can be devised greatly to lessen the easy accessibility of guns to criminals without denying such weapons, or even significantly curtailing their accessibility, to law-abiding citizens.
The ways to do this include: (a) state licensing (subject to minimum federal standards) for the legal possession of any kind of usable firearm; (b) holding each licensee strictly responsible for the safekeeping, legal use, and legal transfer of every gun he may own; (c) prohibiting the sale or other transfer of ammunition to anyone lacking a license for gun possession; and (d) a public-awareness campaign urging gun owners to make sure their guns, if kept at home, are not readily accessible to children, thieves—in fact, to anyone who lacks the crucial credentials for responsible possession of such weapons.
These and other measures are urgently needed in a comprehensive, balanced strategy to combat crime, especially the violent crime afflicting our country. A properly crafted policy affecting all privately-owned guns—a policy fully responsive to the imperatives of public safety and fully respectful of the rights and skills of responsible, law-abiding gun owners—would get the support of most Americans, including millions of law-abiding gun owners themselves. No such policy is currently on the agenda of any level of government, not even of today’s gun-control movement.
David J. Steinberg
To the Editor:
It is obvious what James Q. Wilson wants to do about pseudo-crime: lock up all the male underclass who do not measure up to his standards of morality. This attitude has undertones of a perfectibility-of-mankind utopia.
There are not enough jail cells to hold all the drug users? Well, build more, and in the meantime, although Mr. Wilson denies the wisdom of it, the practical result is that murderers and rapists are turned loose early. This has to be sheer madness. Observe the rash of senior judges who refuse to be a party to it.
Mr. Wilson clearly differentiates between “real criminals” and “drug offenders.” . . . He later refers to his COMMENTARY article, “Against the Legalization of Drugs” [February 1990], in which he ignores marijuana but comes down heavily on heroin and cocaine. This is not so much because of their addictive nature as because of their “degradation of the human personality.” What does he think ten years (let alone life) imprisonment does to this human personality? . . .
I have read what Mr. Wilson says about drugs and I have not changed my mind about the need for their decriminalization. It is hard to imagine how society could be worse off than it is now.
G. M. Foglesong
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson . . . is, on the whole, objective and balanced and his proposals are often reasonable and practical. Nevertheless, his thinking about crime suffers from two serious flaws: (1) his approach to and understanding of the phenomenon of crime is conditioned by a resolutely middle-class sensibility; (2) his proposals tend to be bureaucratic and are derived from questionable notions about abnormal behavior. This has led him to the politically and morally dangerous tendency to overidentify the phenomenon of crime with specific types and groups. His collaboration with the late Richard J. Herrnstein on the book Crime and Human Nature led him even deeper into theories of genetically-based criminality. Such theories in turn lead to the notion that we can know who the criminals are even before they commit a crime. And that, of course, leads to preventive measures which, if enacted, would soon challenge constitutional safeguards. The fact that Mr. Wilson acknowledges the problem does not lessen the dangerous reactionary tendency in his thought, dangerous especially at a time when draconian solutions seem attractive.
The bureaucratic cast of Mr. Wilson’s thought is reflected in the “community-based-policing” concept, which he pioneered. Since there is very little community upon which to base such policing, it becomes simply an extension of the police bureaucracy into the community in a more benign fashion. It favors a management solution over a human one. What is needed is an archeological dig within the neighborhood itself in order to find the material from which real communities can grow. The police should be a component in that process, not its centerpiece.
Mr. Wilson should not be faulted because he has sought in a sincere and, I believe, humane fashion to apply the tools of his academic trades—the concepts of political science and other social sciences—to what he takes to be the problem of crime in society today. . . . But our experience to date suggests that in the area of crime and punishment social science has offered very little that has been helpful beyond the development of certain tools of crime detection and prosecution. . . .
The subject of crime and punishment eludes understanding because it has been improperly classified as an object of social science. . . . Yet it is as ancient and as . . . fundamental as creation itself. . . . If there needs to be a discourse other than moral theology to talk about this phenomenon, it would best be called philosophic anthropology. Until we understand this, we will continue to indulge in pseudo-science and waste good money and good intelligence on a strange shadow dance that leaves the reality of crime and punishment unchanged.
San Francisco, California
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson does not tell us “What to do About Crime” but “What to do About Some Kinds of Crime: Murder, Robbery, Rape, Etc.” . . . What he ignores is the larger encompassing culture of criminal behavior in which the crimes that interest him are only a part.
When we follow the news, say by reading the New York Times or Canada’s Globe and Mail, it is difficult to avoid concluding that criminal behavior is so widespread that it is no great distortion to describe it as endemic. Yes, there are murders and robberies and rapes, but there are also other crimes that appear to be irrepressible. I list a handful of recent examples from a virtually inexhaustible supply:
- New York Times, June 28, 1994: National Medical Enterprises Inc., one of America’s largest psychiatric-hospital chains, pleaded guilty to paying kickbacks and bribes for referrals. The firm agreed to pay $362.7 million in settlement. . . .
- Globe and Mail, April 7, 1994: C.R. Bard Inc. of New Jersey admitted making faulty heart catheters and then covering up the defects. The company was fined $61 million. Two deaths have been traced to the faulty catheters and at least seventeen patients needed emergency surgery. . . .
- New York Times, September 12, 1994: Headline: “In Immigration Labyrinth, Corruption Comes Easily.” . . .
- Globe and Mail, March 15, 1994: Deloitte & Touche, one of the biggest North American accounting firms, paid the U.S. government $313 million (U.S.) to settle charges it was negligent in audits of more than twenty thrifts and banks.
- New York Times, August 10, 1994: KPMG Peat Marwick, one of the Big Six accounting firms, agreed to pay $186.5 million to settle federal charges that it failed to audit a number of failed and distressed banks and savings institutions properly.
- New York Times, July 7, 1994: The “most prevalent form [of police corruption] is not [New York City] police taking money to accommodate criminals by closing their eyes to illegal activities such as bookmaking, as was the case twenty years ago,” said the Mollen report, “but police acting as criminals, especially in connection with the drug trade.”
- New York Times, March 9, 1994: Headline: “Managers of Coops and Condos Are Accused of Payoff Scheme: New York Inquiry Finds Contractors are Extorted.”
I would be very pleased if Mr. Wilson would draw on his knowledge and wisdom about crime to tell us how the culture of crime arose and embedded itself in national life.
A. N. Barnett
West Kingston, Ontario, Canada
To the Editor:
In his article, James Q. Wilson has provided us with a host of interesting ideas for reducing America’s crime rate, but he is out of step with most law-and-order legislators and former U.S. Attorney General William Barr who support stiffer sentences for violent and repeat offenders as the primary weapon in the war on crime. . . .
Mr. Wilson is correct that sentencing felons to life for their third conviction is misguided. . . . But there is no legal reason why the judicial system cannot be reformed to incarcerate felons at the stage of their criminal careers when they are most likely to engage in criminal behavior.
First, eliminate parole, and require felons to serve at least 85 percent of their actual sentences. . . . According to a Gallup poll, 92 percent of the American people believe that criminals should serve their full sentences. But violent felons serve an average of only 37 percent of their actual sentences. . . .
Second, require mandatory minimum sentences for first-time violent offenders. Do not wait until a person is convicted for the second or third time. Let every potential murderer know that if he is convicted of first-degree murder, he will serve a minimum 25-year sentence without any chance of parole. Mandatory sentences for rape should be ten years and for aggravated assault at least five years.
Second-offense violent offenders should face the first-offense minimum plus five years. Third-time offenders should get ten years extra.
Third, reform the juvenile-justice system to treat anyone fourteen or over as an adult when he commits a violent crime. Since judges are loath to sentence juveniles to adult prisons, special juvenile prisons will have to be constructed to house violent juvenile felons until they reach eighteen years of age. Colorado has already begun this practice.
If these three reforms are enacted, . . . violent offenders will be put away and kept off the streets for many years, often until they graduate out of the active criminal years. It is also very likely to have a deterrent effect on young potential criminals.
All these reforms are attempts to tie the hands of judges and parole boards who have been responsible for so much crime by allowing repeat and violent felons to serve short terms or no terms at all. . . .
If we enact these reforms, we will have to build more prisons. . . . But if this is the price we must pay for a safer society, it is well worth it.
To the Editor:
I applaud your choice for the inaugural article in the series concerning the major problems facing American society. In “What to do About Crime,” James Q. Wilson once again demonstrates that he is one of America’s most brilliant thinkers on the subject of crime.
Mr. Wilson, I believe, is correct in attributing the current prominence of crime in the national psyche not to skyrocketing crime rates, but to the fear of apparently random violence perpetrated “by youngsters who afterward show us the blank, unremorseful faces of seemingly feral, presocial beings.” Irrespective of the actual probability of being victimized, the average American is overwhelmed by the media’s reporting of violent crime. Images of senseless violence surround and threaten us. The nonchalance shown by convicted killers . . . seems to be more shocking than the murder.
Unfortunately, Mr. Wilson is equally well-founded in his pessimism regarding the likelihood that this country will seriously address its crime problems. “It’s crime, stupid!” will probably soon be replaced by another concern as the issue-attention cycle evolves. . . .
As Mr. Wilson observes, the standard panoply of liberal solutions ranging from gun control to television censorship to midnight basketball leagues might make politicians feel good about themselves but is unlikely to reduce crime. Punitive approaches, such as mandatory sentencing, are intuitively attractive to most citizens, but are expensive and do not seem to correlate very strongly with reductions in crime. It is well documented that most convicts sentenced to long prison terms have already passed the peak of their criminal careers. The younger offenders still likely to commit hundreds of crimes receive lenient treatment.
Nonetheless, incarceration clearly preempts the crime that prisoners would have otherwise committed regardless of its deterrent effect on would-be criminals and criminals still on the loose. . . . We can never be certain of whether midnight basketball keeps junior from a life of crime; but if he is in a cell, we know he is not beating and robbing the lady next door. Despite their many flaws, “three-strikes” laws will at least curtail the number of fourth strikes.
It is highly appropriate to remove the “feral” predators from society at large, but we need to do a much better job of choosing whom we send to prison. Prison beds are a limited commodity. It makes little sense to allow nonviolent convicts, like the more than 16,000 federal prisoners sentenced for low-level drug crimes, to displace thugs who commit robbery, kidnapping, and assault.
Christopher M. Schnaubelt
San Luis Obispo, California
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson’s “What to do About Crime” is a pragmatic and objective analysis of the leading concern in America today. . . .
I am a professional who has been involved in corrections and law-enforcement for the past sixteen years, so I am qualified to assure you that Mr. Wilson is right on target in reporting that 6 percent of the boys of any given age have a criminal orientation. In fact, FBI statistics, as well as information from other reliable sources, point to 5 percent of criminal felons committing approximately 80 percent of all offenses.
There is a consistent number of individuals in all societies throughout the world and throughout history whose personalities and psychological makeup are essentially criminal. . . . Other societies have dealt with this reality soberly and sensibly. In liberal democracies such as Holland, Denmark, Sweden, and other nations, “psychopath laws” are enforced with indeterminate sentencing based on considerations of public safety. . . . Classification and targeting of this criminal class would make a significant dent in U.S. crime rates.
Mr. Wilson is also on target about the futility of intrusive gun-control laws. . . . The problem is not the availability of guns, but rather the criminal use of guns. In states like Florida, Alabama, and Idaho, the concealed-gun permits now available to any qualified citizen have certainly not led to a rise in crime. In fact, in Florida, the enactment of the “carrying” statute immediately led to a significant drop in violent crimes. . . .
Effectively dealing with the criminal class . . . requires innovative concepts. I have worked with “intensive supervision programs” (ISP) for the past seven years, . . . but what is so promising now is that electronic monitoring is entering its second generation. Rather than home detention and curfew, the new technology (currently available) makes it possible for . . . adjudicated stalkers, released felons, pre-trial detainees, and others to be controlled . . . with cellular triangulation and tracking systems that will notify authorities of their location at all times. . . . An approach to an off-limits location would set off a programmed alarm. . . . The major benefit of this new system is that it would permit . . . inexpensive control over lower-risk offenders. . . .
Mr. Wilson is strongly opposed to the legalization or decriminalization of drugs. I can understand his view. I too am against the use of drugs. But my own long experience with criminal drug enforcement leads me to . . . the conviction that drug prohibition and enforcement simply do not work. As a veteran of the “war on drugs,” with experience in arresting career-criminal parolees involved in the drug trade, I, along with growing numbers of my colleagues, have little illusion about the possibility of winning this particular war. . . . In fact, the “war on drugs” itself has become a major industry in America today, separate from the massive profits generated by the illegal drug cartels. . . .
In the course of this campaign, the drug offender has been denigrated and dehumanized. The criminal incarceration of drug users and abusers will certainly be recognized one day as a barbarism of our age similar to the imprisonment of the mentally ill in the 18th and 19th centuries. Substance abuse is a medical and behavioral pathology that requires rational professional treatment of the user, not criminal sanctions. The social politics of drug enforcement serve, probably unintentionally, to target certain groups unfairly. For example, black Americans comprise approximately 12 percent of the U.S. population and they account for approximately 11 percent of all cocaine use (powder and rock forms), but they account for more than 80 percent of all cocaine arrests, prosecutions, and incarcerations because of the differing enforcement standards for rock and powder cocaine. . . .
The view that drug (as well as alcohol) abuse contributes to criminality is simplistic and ultimately erroneous. There is a real difference between people who are compelled to commit crimes because of the artificially high price of drugs and those with real criminal orientation who commit wanton crimes under the influence of drugs. . . . Gratuitous crime, under the influence of either drugs or alcohol, should be a cause for aggravation, not mitigation, of the act. Possibly the real choice for public policy is that of the availability of treatment for substance abusers combined with the realization that as long as substance use and abuse do not infringe on others, they should be private matters.
To the Editor:
Though I agree with James Q. Wilson on almost all the issues he discusses, . . . I believe he has underestimated . . . the difference between the feeling of safety that exists in large European cities and the lack of it in our large cities. I am writing this letter on my way back to Chicago. I have been away for two weeks in such places as London, Paris, Venice, and Geneva. I walked the streets of these cities both day and night with a comfort that does not exist in Chicago. Indeed, the only time that I feel threatened in Europe is when my wife and I are on a dark street, there are footsteps behind us, and I momentarily forget that I am in Paris and not in New York or Chicago. . . . The feeling of safety that has been taken from us as residents of our wonderful country is very distressing.
Philip J. Schiller
To the Editor:
In his article on crime, James Q, Wilson mentions one important area only in passing: “There are only two restraints on behavior—morality, enforced by individual conscience or social rebuke, and law, enforced by the police and the courts.” The former, “what custom and morality once produced,” he apparently is willing to write off. But in view of the wealth of thought and knowledge from the past on this very subject, and the centuries of relatively effective law and order under its more ethical prescriptions, one must ask, why should we ignore it? . . . Why, merely because of an “enlarged spirit of freedom” is our dilemma considered “insoluble” except in terms of more police or silly government programs?
A more positive antidote might be found in a prompt dismantling of the supposed “wall of separation” now protecting us inanely from religion. One might start with Edmund Burke: “[R]eligion is one of the great bonds of human society; and its object the supreme good, the ultimate end and object of man himself.” It is not too late. Things have not changed that much since Burke’s day. . . .
In the end, regardless of all the “solutions” put forward by our current “sophisters and calculators,” until the citizens of America do more serious reading and recover their understanding of history, truth, excellence, and respect for and adherence to religion and the prescriptions of the U.S. Constitution, . . . all the man-made law and cops in the world will not suffice.
In such an event, better-educated judges would have the wisdom to use restraint in preserving our constitutional system and, at the same time, understand better how to deal with criminals; law schools would have principled teachers instead of deconstructionist ideologists; legislators would not be visionless demagogues protecting their sinecures; the people themselves would comprehend the marvelous gift that once was their Constitution and perhaps exercise the courage to recover it; and intelligent people like James Q. Wilson would not have to write long essays on academic solutions to flawed public policy and could get back to teaching. . . .
W. Edward Chynoweth
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson recognizes only two controls on behavior: morality . . . and law. What ever happened to the fear of God? . . .
Effective policing, swift and sure punishment, etc. are all necessary to stop crime, but they are not enough. To address crime without also assessing society’s spiritual resources is to err in a peculiarly humanist way. The slippery slope is not a one-way street. Prescribing school prayer may put us on the road to an established church, but denying students a moment of silent meditation leads to godlessness and disintegration. . . . If our society is to be saved, it is time for a swing from secularism to that good Old Time Religion. . . .
Lawrence J. Kramer
To the Editor:
I wish to add one point to James Q. Wilson’s excellent article. . . . In “A Nation of Cowards” (Public Interest, Fall 1993), Jeffrey R. Snyder . . . blames the current crime situation on the fact that we are, well, a nation of cowards. According to Snyder, “One who values his life and takes seriously his responsibilities . . . will possess and cultivate the means of fighting back.” . . . Snyder points out that the much-reviled hand gun is indeed “the great equalizer.”
Here in Florida, law-abiding citizens are allowed to carry loaded firearms in their vehicles, and concealed-weapons permits are relatively easy to obtain. Not too long ago, some juvenile predators were interviewed on the evening news and asked why they attacked tourists’ cars rather than those of locals. Not surprisingly, the almost unanimous answer was that the youths could be sure that the tourists would be unarmed; not so with the locals. . . .
Dennis E. Berger
North Miami Beach, Florida
To the Editor:
Thanks for “What to do About Crime.” In my 18 years as a post-World War II street-gang worker and settlement-house supervisor as well as my 27 years of university teaching about crime and deviance, I have never read so clear, concise, and practical an article.
James Q. Wilson correctly states that “Much of our uniquely American crime problem . . . arises . . . from the concentration in disorderly neighborhoods of people at risk of failing.” He notes that this concentration is due to: the loss of functioning families who escaped the blight by moving away; racism; and “politics (elected officials do not wish to see settled constituencies broken up).” It is not only politicians who have a stake in maintaining this underclass, but also black leaders and ministers like Louis Farrakhan, Sonny Carson, and Benjamin Chavis. They rarely condemn the drug-dealing and violence of their constituents except to complain about black youths killing one another. And, not subtly, they have made anti-Semitism the rallying cry for these youths. . . .
Sheldon C. Seller
[Additional correspondence on this article, and James Q. Wilson’s reply, will appear next month.—Ed.]