Friday, March 16, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: Remembering James Q. Wilson author of ‘Broken Window’ Theory

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
March 16, 2012

Earlier this month James Q. Wilson died at the age of 80. He was one of the nation’s best known social scientists -- particularly his research and thinking on law and order. His best known work was referred to as the “broken windows” theory.

The “broken windows” theory was written in 1982 with a colleague, George L. Kelling, and published in The Atlantic Monthly. The paper made a name for Wilson when the theory was adopted by New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his Police Commissioner William Bratton.

The broken windows theory is simple. If one window is broken in a building and left unrepaired, soon all the other windows would be broken and crime would take over and violence would become pervasive. The solution? Crime can be controlled if neighborhoods are maintained.

In 1994, when Giuliani took office, violent crime was out of control in New York City. He hired Bratton who had used some of Wilson’s ideas as the chief of the New York City Transit Police. The results were remarkable. Crime rates, particularly homicide, dipped to unprecedented lows. Between 1990 and 2009 homicides were down 82 percent.

Peter H. Schuck, a professor at Yale University and a colleague of Wilson’s, wrote in the New York Times that the broken windows theory was a small part of Wilson’s “extraordinary contribution to sound thinking about government, politics and public policy.

Schuck continued, “In the field of social science, where good theories generating important testable predictions are exceptionally rare, no one else has come close to matching his achievement.” Wilson succeeded in using rigorous academic approaches to educate mass audiences. His ability to deftly translate difficult concepts for application by frontline practitioners like police officers and policymakers put him “in a small pantheon of public intellectuals.”

In the 1990s, policymakers began to aggressively expand the reach of the crimes code, prisons swelled, and more and more juveniles were prosecuted as adults. Wilson began to feel the wrath of some who suggested his support of the now debunked juvenile “super-predator” theory was behind a nationwide push to increase punishment for juvenile offenders.

Then-Princeton Professor John Delulio coined the term “super-predator” for those gun-toting, remorseless young offenders who had a propensity for violence and were putting the nation “at risk of a bloodbath once they became adults unless they were kept behind bars.” In some instances that punishment became extremely severe. Case in point, the roughly 2,600 offenders serving life in prison without the possibility of parole (JLWOP) for killings committed as juveniles.

The JLWOP issue is scheduled for argument before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday. Wilson had sign-off on an amicus brief in favor of outlawing JLWOP. He was not above admitting a mistake and more importantly he had the courage to doing something to correct it. That is admirable, and somewhat rare, conduct by a public person in today’s society.

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