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By 1974, the murder rate was more than twice what it had been in 1961. Between 1960 and 1976, a citizen’s chances of becoming a victim of a major violent crime tripled. So did the murder of policemen.
People clever with words sought all sorts of ways of denying the obvious fact that the fancy new developments in the criminal law were catastrophically counterproductive. That was when James Q. Wilson’s writings on crime burst upon the scene, cutting through all the fancy evasions with hard facts and hard logic.
The idea that crime results from poverty, or can be reduced by alleviating poverty, Professor Wilson shot down by pointing out that “crime rose the fastest in this country at a time when the number of persons living in poverty or squalor was declining.” He said, “I have yet to see a ‘root cause’ or to encounter a government program that has successfully attacked it.”
Nor did Wilson buy the argument that unemployment drove people to crime or welfare. He noted that “the work force was at an all-time high at the same time as were the welfare rolls.” Nor were minorities frozen out of this economy. By 1969, “the nonwhite unemployment rate had fallen to 6.5 percent,” he pointed out.
By systematically confronting the prevailing notions and rhetoric with undeniable facts to the contrary, James Q. Wilson began to wear away the prevailing social dogmas of intellectuals behind the counterproductive changes in law and society. It was much like water wearing away rock — slowly but continually.
The common sense that had once produced and sustained declining crime rates began to reappear, here and there, in the criminal justice system and sometimes prevailed. Murder rates began to decline again. James Q. Wilson was the leader in this fight. He said, “We have trifled with the wicked.”
There is no way to know which ones of us are alive today because of his work. But we all owe him a debt of gratitude.
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