Wilson, James Quinn

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Wilson, James Quinn

James Q. Wilson is a significant American thinker and writer whose views on Criminology, economics, politics, and culture have found both acceptance and criticism since the 1970s. Wilson is particularly known for advancing the "broken window" theory of crime deterrence. Wilson's 1982 thesis was simple: if people see a broken factory or office window that is left unrepaired, they will conclude that no one is looking after the property. Soon all the windows will be broken, signaling the breakdown of law and order in that neighborhood. Wilson's theory held that neighborhoods could prevent the growth of crime if they quickly took steps such as replacing broken windows, removing graffiti, keeping streets and buildings in good repair, and making arrests for petty crimes and misdemeanors such as littering and evading fares for public transportation. Numerous U.S. cities embraced Wilson's theory. The most notable response was that of New York City in the 1990s when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton used this approach to successfully reduce crime and improve the perception of New York City as a safe place to visit.

James Quinn Wilson was born May 27, 1931, in Long Beach, California. Wilson did not plan on attending college until his high school English teacher told him that he could attend the University of Redlands on a scholarship. In 1952 Wilson graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science. Wilson enlisted in the navy during the Korean War and served three years. He then attended graduate school at the University of Chicago where he received a Ph.D. in 1959.

Wilson taught government at Harvard University from 1961 until 1987. He then taught management and public policy at UCLA from 1985 to 1997. In the early 2000s Wilson was the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy.

Wilson has served on a number of national commissions related to public policy. In 1966 he was chair of the White House Task Force on Crime. He also served as chair of the National Advisory Commission on Drug Abuse Prevention in 1972–1973 and was a member of the attorney general's Task Force on Violent Crime in 1981. From 1985 to 1990 he was a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Wilson served on the board of directors for the Police Foundation from 1971 to 1973.

In addition to serving on the board of directors of a number of major U.S. corporations, Wilson served as chair of the council of academic advisors for the American Enterprise Institute. He was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was made a fellow of the American Philosophical Society. In 1990 Wilson received the James Madison Award for distinguished scholarship from the American Political Science Association (APSA). He served as president of the APSA from 1991 to 1992.

Wilson has authored more than a dozen books dealing with the topics of crime, government, urban problems, and aspects of American culture. One of Wilson's most seminal works was Thinking about Crime, published in 1975. In this book Wilson, a strong conservative, rejected the rehabilitation model of punishment that held that offenders are subject to rehabilitative efforts and that money spent on social programs helps reduce crime. Wilson wrote that offenders could not be helped by social programs because they have made a rational choice to commit crimes. Wilson argued in favor of the deterrence model that held that incarceration and other government-imposed sanctions are the best methods of deterring would-be offenders.

"Without religious freedom, modern government is impossible."
—James Q. Wilson

Wilson's arguments in favor of the deterrence model of crime and punishment gained support throughout the 1980s and 1990s. During this period a number of states as well as the federal government replaced indeterminate sentencing policies that gave judges and Parole boards wide latitude to determine how long an offender should be incarcerated, with sentencing guidelines that mandated particular sentence lengths with little discretion left to the judges. These policy changes met with great favor from governmental officials and members of the public who advocated increased law and order. Human Rights advocates and others have criticized the results of the deterrence model as infringing on civil liberties. Some members of the judiciary have protested severe penalties for what they see as minor offenses. Nevertheless, Wilson has been steadfast in defending his theory. As crime rates fell in the 1990s, he argued that deterrence worked. In a 1998 U.S. News and World Report article Wilson stated, "Putting people in prison is the single most important thing we've done."

Wilson continued to stir controversy in 2002 with the publication of his book, The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families, in which he argued that Cohabitation and Divorce have led to increases in school dropouts, teenage pregnancies, and criminal activity.

Further readings

Kelling, George M., and Catherine L. Coles. 1998. Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities. New York: Touchstone Books.

Wilson, James Q. 2002. The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families. New York: HarperCollins.

——. 1997. Moral Judgment: Does the Abuse Excuse Threaten Our Legal System? New York: BasicBooks.

——. 1995. On Character: Essays. Washington, D.C.: AEI Press.

Cross-references

Crimes; Rehabilitation; Sentencing.