Thinking About Crime
James Q. Wilson
231 pp. New York: Basic Books, Inc. 1975. Out of Print.
Thinking About Crime, first published in 1975, is based on a collection of articles by
political scientist James Q. Wilson. Wilson’s simple, logical analysis of crime in the U.S. and
society’s responses is in sharp contrast to the popular, though seemingly ineffective, sociological
theories and political policies of that era. Though the ensuing quarter-century has shown this
book to be a true watershed in thinking about crime, Wilson’s ideas and their effectiveness are still
James Q. Wilson is a graduate of the University of Redlands and earned his PhD from the
University of Chicago in 1959. He served as Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at
Harvard University when he wrote Thinking About Crime and held the position for twenty six
years. He had already served on various presidential task forces and national advisory
commissions related to crime and law enforcement issues, and authored books dealing with police
behavior and political organizations. In recent years Wilson has served as James Collins Professor
of Management at UCLA, has authored or co-authored twelve books and has been a member of
the Attorney General’s Task Force on Violent Crime and the President’s Foreign Intelligence
Advisory Board. He is a fellow of the American Philosophical Society. Wilson has been elected a
member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and received the James Madison award
for distinguished scholarship from the American Political Science Association as well as honorary
degrees from four universities.
Wilson’s premise in Thinking About Crime is inspiring in its clarity and simplicity. He
believes that government is ill equipped to remedy the root causes of crime even if they could be
identified with certainty; that people make rational choices to commit crime based on the relative
risk and reward offered; that public policy decisions regarding crime should increase the risk and
lower the relative reward of crime thereby helping to deter it.
Many sociologists believe that the only way to solve the crime problem is to address the
root causes of crime and, if the root causes are not addressed, then nothing of value has been
accomplished. Some ridicule the very idea of deterrence. However Wilson argues that root
causes are such precisely because they cannot be easily changed, especially by government.
Sociologically, how could the government best change deviant peer values, lack of supporting
community structure or the absence of nurturing families - take children from their parents and
put them in government families? Biologically, most criminals are young males, how can the
government address this problem - change them into middle-aged women? (Killing 43 million
children by abortion has impacted this root cause but at what cost?) Wilson contends that, while
the root causes of crime are fascinating and important to study, public policy decisions should be
based on what government can change - the risk and relative reward of crime. He says in his
advisory roles he learned “....that many of those seated about me, urging in the strongest tones
various “solutions” to crime were speaking out of ideology, not scholarship.”(p.62)
In the book, Wilson introduces the social and political history of the era as it relates to
crime. He discusses police practices, police/community relations, drug abuse and the death
penalty at length, analyzing the available data and formulating conclusions. In 1974 there was
little empirical data to support the “Broken Window Policing” that he now endorses, however
Wilson used the data that was becoming available in a scientifically honest, meticulous and gifted
application to crime reduction. The word “thinking” (as opposed to “feeling”) in the title is quite
Wilson’s main proposals in the book have to do with courts and corrections and how they
could better deter and incapacitate criminals. He proposes that in an ideal world:
1. Courts would focus on sentencing rather than on the “largely mythic” job of
2. The sentencing process would be centrally managed with uniform standards.
3. Every non-trivial offense would result in a deprivation of liberty, invariably
applied, which would increase with the severity of the offense.
4. “Deprivation of Liberty” would be a work release/treatment type program and
need not involve prison in most cases.
5. Conviction of subsequent offenses would invariably result in an increased
deprivation of liberty.
A perusal of these measures will reveal that many of them have received wide acceptance
in the U.S. criminal justice system today. Kansas has adopted sentencing guidelines that parallel
these ideas. The use of work release/treatment instead of prison, however, has not been adopted
to any great extent and the number of people incarcerated has increased dramatically. This lends
credibility to the argument that the present reduction in crime rates is due more to incapacitation
than to deterrence.
Many sociologists and politically liberal thinkers are livid over the adoption and apparent
success of Wilson’s ideas. They are outraged that the U. S. is “warehousing” such a large
percentage of its population, especially minority population, in prison. Some adamantly refuse to
admit that incapacitation has been helpful in reducing crime. They attribute the drop in crime to
less crack use, fewer people of crime-prone age, success of community programs, etc. However,
in view of the fact that; (1) a small percentage of repeat offenders commit a large percentage of
the crime; (2) an increased number of these offenders are incarcerated, thereby unable to commit
crimes; this seems yet another example of what Wilson described as speaking out of ideology, not
scholarship. This is not to say that incarceration is the best way to reduce crime, only that it does.
Wilson has dealt, in subsequent offerings, with the subject of crime and human nature. He
builds on his theory of rational choice as a factor in crime. Wilson describes human nature as
“complex” by which he means that it is both selfish and beneficent, depending, in any given
situation, on choice. This view of human nature is consistent with both classical criminology and
the historical Christian perspective which views the human race as created “good” by God but
disfigured due to Adam’s choice - sin. Unlike government, however, Christianity offers real
solutions to the root causes of crime. Addressing the military, October 11, 1798, President John
“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human
passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only
for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any
It seems, to keep order in society, men must be redeemed or removed.
That James Q. Wilson’s ideas have apparently been successful in reducing crime, is an
indictment of the Christian community in the U.S. which, lulled into a stupor by materialism, has
strayed from its God-ordered message; that God commands all men everywhere to repent of their
sins and throw themselves on His mercy; that Jesus died and lives to make men holy; that God is
the judge of all the earth.
From the Christian perspective, rational choice theory means that the root causes of crime
are not found in men’s circumstances but in their sinful reaction to their circumstances; in other
words, in people themselves. Fortunately, God changes people. Crime can be reduced at its root
cause - from inside human hearts.
Allen C. Blake
October 10, 2001
SOSC 365, Contemporary Response to Crime and Justice
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