Remembering a Warrior

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There are undoubtedly many people who are alive today because of James Q. Wilson, who died last week. He was not a doctor or medical scientist, nor was he a fireman or coast guardsman who rescued people from immediate dangers.

James Q. Wilson was a scholar who studied crime. He saved lives because his penetrating analyses of crime, and the effect of the criminal law, debunked the theories of other intellectuals, which had led judges and legislators to ease up on criminals — leading in turn to skyrocketing rates of crime, including murder.

Prior to 1960, murder rates in the United States had been going down for decades. Even the absolute number of murders declined, while the population grew by millions. Despite the addition of two new states — Hawaii and Alaska — in 1960, the number of murders in the 50 states was less than it had been in the 48 states thirty years earlier.

The murder rate in 1960 was just under half of what it had been in 1934.

But that was not good enough for the intelligentsia, with their theories on how to “solve” our “problems.” First of all, they claimed, we had to stop focusing on punishment and get at the “root causes” of crime. In other words, we had to solve the criminals’ problems, in order to solve the problem of crime.

This approach was not new in the 1960s. In fact, it went back at least as far as the 18th century. But what was new in the 1960s was the widespread acceptance of such notions in the legal system, including the Supreme Court of the United States.

The crusade against punishment, and especially capital punishment, spread through all three branches of the federal government and into state governments as well. Even a murderer caught in the act had so many new “rights,” created out of thin air by judges, that executing him could require a decade or more of additional litigation, even after he was found guilty.

The best-known product of this 1960s revolution in the criminal law was the famous Miranda warning, “You have the right to remain silent,” etc. It is as if we are engaged in some kind of sporting contest with the criminal, and must give him a chance to beat the rap, even when he is guilty.

In the aftermath of this revolution in the criminal law, promoted by the intelligentsia in academia and in the media, the long downward trend in murder suddenly reversed.

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  • Alex Kovnat

    I agree with most of what Thomas Sowell writes. I luv the guy! But I wonder: If the murder rate dropped between 1930 and 1960, could this be because lives were saved on the operating table who otherwise would have died, owing to medical advances? Could the discovery of antibiotics (i.e. Penicillin) saved wounded people who would otherwise have died from infections?

    • Questions

      I doubt it. It's doubtful the wonder drugs of their time, like penicillin, played that much of a role in the drop in the murder rate. I would argue the main reasons were: 1) better policing; 2) successful assimilation of first-generation immigrants; and 3) increased prosperity.

      • pagegl

        and 4) a prevailing attitude that commiting crime was bad.

  • Fred Dawes

    A Great guy may he R.I.P.

  • BarbaraJoanne

    Thank you for this.

  • Ron Carnine

    As a law enforcement officer (retired) I have seen fads come and go. Mostly because police depts. had to enact the fad in order to get government grant money. But what has always worked best were those times when the courts held the individual responsible for their behavior and an unwillingness to obey the law would eventually lead to a long jail sentence or execution. These principles worked best and they still will. But the cops will still have to walk through the garbage to get their jobs done and the fads will continue to come and go. If the bad guys fear the cops and the punishment that will come (prison) then they will think twice before committing a crime. If you tell them that it was societies fault they are bad or their parents fault they kill, steal and destroy they will rapidly pick up on that excuse and see themselves as victims instead of perpetrators. Certainly you can't put victims in jail would you?