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March 31, 2008

James Wilson questions whether society gets as much from universities as it does from prisons

Thanks to this great post at Grits, I saw this notable op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by James Q. Wilson, headlined "Do the time, lower the crime."  Scott does a great job in his post highlighting "a few of the overstatements and obfuscations" in Wilson's criticisms of study by the Pew Center on the States regarding America's high incarceration rate. 

Rather than jump on the criticism bandwagon, let me quote a few notable paragraphs from the long Wilson op-ed that highlight there is both good and bad in Wilson's observations about the Pew research:

You cannot make an argument about the cost of prisons without taking into account the benefit of prisons. The Pew report makes no effort to do this. Instead, it argues that spending on prisons may be crowding out spending on education.  For instance, tax dollars spent on higher education in the U.S. have increased much more slowly than those spent on corrections.  The report does not ask whether the slower growth may be in part because of the sharp increase in private support for public universities, much less whether society gets as much from universities as it does from prisons.

But Pew rightly points to problems in the nation's imprisonment policy and in what it does (or, typically, doesn't do) to prevent crime in the first place.  Take California.  It has failed to manage well the health -- especially the mental health -- problems of many of its inmates. Federal judges are in the process of imposing tough new rules to rectify the problem.  Nor has the state found good ways to integrate former inmates back into society.  Instead, parole officers routinely send people back to prison if they misbehave -- and sometimes the return orders are for minor violations.

California does not handle drug offenders wisely either.  Just how big this problem is remains uncertain because some inmates involved in serious crimes plead out to drug offenses to avoid tougher prison sentences.  For serious drug users who have not committed a major crime, the goal should be to get them into a community treatment program and keep the offenders there.

March 31, 2008 at 05:41 PM | Permalink


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Tracked on Sep 21, 2009 2:16:37 PM


Grits provides some interesting thoughts. I wonder, though, whether all of the talk about how much different jurisdictions incarcerate misses the mark; perhaps it depends on where the emphasis is: violent crime v. non-violent crime. Perhaps those jurisdictions that are hard on violent criminals have lower rates than lose who don't (but still lock up lots of people for other reasons). I honestly don't know.

That said, I think we need to be careful about considering all drug offenders as essentially frivolous offenders (and I'm no fan of our current drug policies). The criminology literature suggests that drug use is an independent factor for criminality aside from the fact that drug possession and use is unlawful. It has been suggested that those who use lots of drugs have other personality traits that dispose them to crime and violence. If true, this would suggest that drugs are a big deal when we're talking about crime.

Just my 2 cents.

Posted by: Steve Erickson | Mar 31, 2008 8:54:07 PM

Wilson: "For instance, in 1976, Britain had a lower robbery rate than did California. But then California got tough on crime as judges began handing out more prison sentences, and Britain became soft as laws were passed encouraging judges to avoid prison sentences. As a result, the size of the state's prison population went up while Britain's went down. By 1996, Britain's robbery rate was one-quarter higher than California's."

Wrong: "In the ten year period since 1989 longer sentence prisoners (over 4 years) have tended to increase as a proportion of all sentenced prisoners, moving from 32 per cent of all prisoners in 1989 to 40 per cent in 1999." Home Office: THE PRISON POPULATION IN 1999

What's more, from the DOJ study Wison evidently cites: "The higher U.S. conviction rate for murder is explained entirely by the higher U.S. murder rate. According to the most recent statistics on crime (1996) and the justice system (1994 in the United States, 1995 in England), the U.S. murder rate is nearly six times the English murder rate (figure 5). Correspondingly, the U.S. murder conviction rate per 1,000 population is nearly six times England's (.059 versus .010) (figure 19)."

So does Wilson argue that as our robbery rate went down, our murder rate went up? How else can he explain this? And how does he explain the lack of deterrence for murder in the U.S. compared to England?

England Details of the information for the period 1995 -1999 on crime recorded by police in 32 countries is given below:

* Total recorded crime fell by 1% in the EU Member States and by 10% in England and Wales.
* England and Wales had one of the lowest homicide rates in Western Europe for 1997-1999.
* Violent crime rose by 11% on average in the EU but by 20% in England and Wales.
* Domestic Burglaries fell on average by 14 % in the EU but by 31% in England and Wales.
* Theft from motor vehicles rose on average by 7% in the EU but fell by 27% in England and Wales.
* Drug Trafficking offences rose on average by 31% in the EU but fell by 6% in England and Wales.
* England and Wales (at 125 prisoners per 100,000 general population in 1999) had one of the highest per capita rates in Western Europe.

Evidently, Wilson chose robbery for his biased sample because it was the only violent crime he could get away with. Gotta watch these guys.

Posted by: George | Mar 31, 2008 10:26:10 PM

Why can’t people be more honest and simply come out with proposed ideal incarceration rates? To me, it seems like most people I meet think that a significant portion of the country should be in jail. Why can’t we just agree on the percentage, and adjust our criminal laws accordingly.

For example, most people I meet think that high school dropouts are probably going to commit some crime or other, so we should aim to incarcerate most of them. If it means longer sentences, fewer protections, or just fabricating evidence, so be it. We would be a lot safer without the dropouts.

(I should finally note that the “murder rates” referred to in these quasi-economic studies usually refer to either convictions or whatever activity was considered to be “murder” which, itself, requires a legal conclusion.)

Posted by: S.cotus | Apr 1, 2008 6:16:01 AM

Steve, I dare say no criminologist worth their salt would deny that alcohol consumption is an "independent factor for criminality," but we don't lock up every drunk.

Also, my post did not say that "all drug offenders [are] essentially frivolous offenders." We've got murderous criminal gangs running drugs in Texas (and across the border) that make Al Capone look like a wimp, and I want those guys behind bars as much as anybody. That's a different issue from filling the prisons up with crackheads from a handful of Houston, Dallas and Austin neighborhoods, which is the statewide pattern right now.

The statistic my post used to dispute Wilson's implication that only "a few" minor drug offenders are in prison was that 37% of TX probation revocations are for drug offenses. That means a judge or jury at some point didn't think the D was an especially grave threat, or they wouldn't have gotten probation. best,

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Apr 1, 2008 7:24:29 AM

S.cotus you are unbelievable. Perhaps high school dropouts should be subjected to the scintilla of evidence standard for a criminal conviction rather than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard? While we are at it, perhaps people who are highly educated and still make no sense should be incarcerated? We would be a lot safer without those people.
"Why can’t people be more honest and simply come out with proposed ideal incarceration rates? To me, it seems like most people I meet think that a significant portion of the country should be in jail. Why can’t we just agree on the percentage, and adjust our criminal laws accordingly."

Posted by: | Apr 1, 2008 7:29:07 AM

Oh, and thanks, Doug, for the linkage. But I'm curious: Is Grits now a one-man "bandwagon,"? or has somebody else been criticizing Wilson lately? :)

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Apr 1, 2008 7:29:16 AM

Apr 1, 2008 7:29:07 AM,

Perhaps high school dropouts should be subjected to the scintilla of evidence standard for a criminal conviction rather than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard?

In general, they already are subject to a lower standard of probable cause than more educated people. Why not extend it to substantive matters?

Anyone who has ever spoken to a “true believer” prosecutor (or wanna-be) knows that they really feel afraid of most of the country and think that putting people in jail will make them safer. Unfortunately, rather than come out and say that they just want a good chunk of the country in jail, they have to bamboozle people with lines about “tough laws” or “judicial activism” or something like that.

Posted by: S.cotus | Apr 1, 2008 7:37:40 AM

Scotus is proposing precautionary incarceration of persons who might commit a crime (incapacitation gone wild). My guess is that would involve locking up about 10% of the population (about 30 million) and I think the chances of that happening are very small.

We have a lot of habitual nonviolent offenders entering prison because they are habitual not because they are nonviolent. Over half of the prison admissions are some type of revocation (probation, parole & work release in descending order). Because they are nonviolent they are considered to be good risks for parole (I know this sounds nuts but that is what happens) and they are promptly paroled. This is why we have revolving door prisons. We are stuck with the revolving door because we can't afford to hold these folks for their full sentence,

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 1, 2008 7:52:29 AM

To be clear, I am not proposing “precautionary” incarceration. Instead, I am proposing that we reach our ideal incarceration rate by tinkering with existing substantive laws so that we can incarcerate more people earlier based on less proof.

Posted by: S.cotus | Apr 1, 2008 10:38:43 AM


All good points. Like I said, I'm no fan of our current drug policies... and there's no question (IMHO) that alcohol causes more social damage than other drugs, but comparing alcohol to drugs like cocaine doesn't make sense to me. Lots of people use alcohol in moderate and socially acceptable amounts. But few folks can "moderate" their use of cocaine. In my clinical experience as a psychologist, cocaine tends to make people do very scary things. So perhaps, the fear of this drug (and subsequent desire to lock up all drug users) is somewhat justified (although not effective).

I think your point about probationers is more off the mark: People are given probation not because they are judged non-dangerous, but more so because the CJ system simply can't handle all of the people the police give them. Revocation of probation because of drug use speaks more to rule breaking traits of the offender than the legality of drugs per se. If someone is in state prison (not jail), in my experience, it's not just because they're a causal user of drugs. The drug life seems to march hand in hand with other antisocial traits, which dispose users to a variety of penal law charges (besides theft).

Again, just my 2 cents.

Posted by: Steve Erickson | Apr 1, 2008 11:14:07 AM

That should be "casual" of course!

Posted by: Steve Erickson | Apr 1, 2008 11:16:26 AM

Speaking of California, the SacBee.com has a relevant story on unsolved homicides.

They are among the 162 victims in the city and county of Sacramento over the past five years whose homicides have gone unsolved, records show.

That represents about one-third of the 504 homicides investigated by the Sacramento County sheriff's and Sacramento city police departments since 2003, according to records analyzed by The Bee.

While the number of unsolved cases is significant, both departments fared better than other cities and counties the size of Sacramento over the same period, FBI statistics show. Between 2003 and 2006, more than 13,000 homicide cases in large cities and counties across the country yielded no arrests – about 41 percent.

Maybe LE is too busy fixing broken windows. Maybe a better approach would be a move away from the big-government, regulatory state, into a focus that concentrates on harm done. Murder of course tops the list, so every resource should be devoted to every murder until it is so saturated with resources a cost/benefit analysis dictates a focus on the next most harmful crime, maybe mayhem. Which crimes result in the most mayhem? Drunk driving, rape, robbery? All redundant resources from murder investigation go to the next in line, and so on down the line. Broken windows would be at the bottom of list, and no resources should be allocated to fix broken windows when they could efficiently be used higher up the hierarchy of the harm-done list.

Sentencing laws most often already reflect this physical harm-done hierarchy, but LE resources are not allocated accordingly if diverted to less serious crimes before saturation of resources higher up the hierarchy.

One way to help establish this hierarchy might be the codes used in response to 911 calls. Medical bills might be another. An officer writing a ticket will abandon the ticket if he sees an accident. The severity of the harm done to the person, rather than the harm done to society, is a better and more concrete measure of priorities and resources should be so allocated.

Wilson got it backwards.

Posted by: George | Apr 1, 2008 1:54:04 PM

George, I think you miss a very important point, namely, the goal of LE is to prevent murders, not just solve them. A general tolerance of lawlessness breeds murders etc. Moreover, let's not forget that a lawless person typically ruins his own life too. So if we simply let people get away with lesser crimes, then we also foster self-destructive behaviors.

Plus, what you're also forgetting is that people can vote with their feet. People with resources can simply move if LE isn't going to respond to "broken windows" or rapes etc. Then, there will be no tax base etc.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 1, 2008 2:09:15 PM

federalist, you inspired a new term: poligument, like the political twisting of statistics could be politistics.

Even if your premise is true, that "the goal of LE is to prevent murders," are your really arguing that people will vote with their feet and move out of a community with 100% murder-solved rate (without civil rights violations like wrongful convictions) because the community does not fix broken windows, and will move into a community with a 41% unsolved murder rate just because it fixes broken windows?

You also assume fixing broken windows reduces the murder rate more than solving murders and other violent crimes would. What do you base that assumption on?

Your argument equating "broken windows" or rapes etc. is just beyond my ability to respond, hence the coining of poligument. There could be a easy way to resolve that though. Just do a survey and ask citizens if they would rather have a window broken or rather have rape or robbery or murder a solved rather than unsolved crime.

Then we could have a good laugh about a dumb survey that discovered the obvious.

Posted by: George | Apr 1, 2008 4:43:52 PM

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