Commentary Magazine

Law Enforcement, Crime, & Public Policy

To the Editor:

James Q. Wilson [“Crime & the Liberal Audience,” January] chides the liberals for having allowed the political Center and Right to preempt the battle against crime. . . .

Mr. Wilson may have a political point, but whether he has a real one may depend on whether taking a firm position on crime is a promise that can be kept; that is, whether anybody knows a way of reducing crime substantially in the not-too-distant future. In his comments Mr. Wilson does not much occupy himself with that question; of the around 1,000 lines of his article, he devotes 979 to explaining why the liberals did not but should have become crime fighters, but only 21 lines to a discussion of what form the fight should take, and even there he is surprisingly general. The only specific recommendations are in the drug field: “extend the use of chemical alternatives to heroin addiction” and (I have reversed his order to keep the joke for the end) undertake “a massive effort to cut off the flow of heroin into this country.”

Cutting off heroin indeed! Messrs. Anslinger and Hoover have been doing it for a long time, and all they seem to have accomplished is to keep the price sufficiently high to maintain the awesome secondary predatory crime wave of the addicts. I find Ramsey Clark more convincing when he warns in his book, Crime in America, which Mr. Wilson also reviewed in COMMENTARY [Books in Review, March] that organized crime will always supply “goods and services wanted by a large number of people,” and asks us to see the heroin menace in perspective. First, because today it is a smaller problem than it was in 1900, when one out of every 400 Americans was an opiate addict, and second, because he sees the real danger in the whole future wave of synthetic drugs, the stimulants and depressants—generally the artificial mood creators—that might increasingly endear themselves to the nation.

Mr. Wilson also advocates “improvement” of “the police,” an institution he has carefully studied. It is, of course, a tempting thought that if we could only catch more criminals, and let word get around of our success, we would drive them out of business altogether. The truth is that we probably catch as many or as few as any law enforcement system anywhere in a big crawling city. Probably we could catch a few more, but not many more, unless we are prepared to enlarge our police forces very drastically.

Mr. Wilson spares his ultimate wrath for delays in the criminal courts. He encourages us to attend to them with an “outrage that can be aroused by rats in a tenement.” As to the many shortcomings of our criminal courts, there can be no doubt. They are overcrowded, delaying, often undignified. All this should be changed for its own sake, but not primarily because it will substantially reduce our crime rate, because it will not. Mr. Wilson is, of course, also for improving our prisons. But to change them from hell-holes into institutions of learning and work and rehabilitation requires first of all some of that liberal compassion of which Mr. Wilson does not think much. Eugene Debs wrote: “While there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Such compassion has nothing to do with sympathy for crime but it is an indispensable precondition for its cure.

But the real giveaway of Mr. Wilson’s shallow view of the problem is his linking “predatory crime and campus disorder,” a juxtaposition of which the political Center and Right are so fond. Most of us deeply regret efforts to force the universities to become a political-action arena, but to suggest that these efforts of our longhaired, blue-jeaned youngsters are part of the crime problem is exactly the dangerous nonsense that Ramsey Clark tries to lead us away from. Our crime rate was six times as high as that of any other Western country long before our young people rose, and they have not made it worse. The truth is that the roots of our high crime rate are deep in our past and to lay bare their dismal strength and to be skeptical about any short-range cure may not be smart politics, but it is the type of wisdom that makes for the statesmanship we so urgently need.

That law enforcement can control crime of our magnitude is at best a bureaucratic illusion, at worst a shabby political slogan. To be sure, law enforcement could do some very obvious things. It could do something about the 24 million handguns in the homes of ordinary citizens, 40 for every 100 families. Milton Eisenhower’s Commission proved that more handguns mean more homicide. Law enforcement could withdraw from at least some of the non-victim crimes now on our books, and thereby free manpower for more important tasks and also remove a permanent threat to the integrity of the system. But Mr. Wilson is not that specific. As a matter of fact, he is so unspecific that one wonders whether his exhortation to the liberals to man the barricades deserves to be distinguished from those one hears from the most thoughtless of the crime-fighters on the Right.

Law enforcement can do not much more for crime than hospitals can do for cancer. Ramsey Clark has again the better part of wisdom when he writes: “As with all crime, it is late in the day when law enforcement must step in to protect society.” Policies that aim at crime must reach deeper than “cutting off heroin.” The liberals are perhaps more decent in not joining the hue and cry, but evolving policies instead, for which Ramsey Clark’s essay, together with Francis Allen’s The Borderland of Criminal Justice, Norval Morris’s The Honest Politician’s Guide to Crime Control, and Herbert Packer’s The Limits of the Criminal Sanction, are a thoughtful preparation.

Hans Zeisel
University of Chicago Law School
Chicago, Illinois



To the Editor:

Bravo to James Q. Wilson for his discerning and perceptive article. I assume he zeroed in on liberals because he considers himself a liberal, but certainly his strictures contain food for thought for conservatives as well, since both liberals and conservatives have failed to address the real problems. . . .

What most liberals and conservatives have failed to realize is that our criminal justice system is not a system. As the Eisenhower Commission and FBI reports have shown, suspects are arrested in only 12 per cent of the nation’s serious crimes, only 6 per cent are convicted, and only l½ per cent are imprisoned for these crimes. Based on these figures, it would be hard to say that “crime does not pay.” The present criminal justice system does not deter, does not detect, does not convict, does not correct, and will not improve without substantial public understanding and activity.

It is for this reason that fifty-four national and regional organizations have combined to form the National Alliance on Shaping Safer Cities, in order to take the crime issue away from both the ultra-Right that calls for repression and the ultra-Left that calls for violent confrontation. . . .

The Alliance believes that we need an informed citizenry demanding change based not on emotion or preordained ideologies, but rather on knowledge. In that way, it feels, the many recommendations of experts, results of research, and successes of pilot projects, can be introduced into the total system of criminal justice. The Alliance plans to do this by involving citizens at all levels in determining how the streets are to be policed and how justice is to be meted out in humane, constructive ways. One of the important things we want to do is help destroy myths and stereotypes about crime.

For example, who are the worst victims of violent crime? Blacks, not whites. In the seven FBI Index crimes—forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny ($50 and over), auto theft, and willful homicide—the only crime in which whites are victims more often than blacks is larceny. That is why so many black, Mexican-American, and Puerto Rican groups are even more exercised about violent crimes than are white groups.

Another instance. The first jail census taken by the Justice Department’s Law Enforcement Assistance Administration revealed that 52 per cent of the 426,000 inmates in jails across the nation have not been convicted of any crime. Of these, four out of five are eligible for bail but cannot raise the cash. Because courts have tremendous backlogs, defendants may linger in overcrowded cells for months or even years. . . .

When we do arrest people and send them to jail, we seem, with rules and regulations, to be trying to insure that they return. Everybody knows that the purpose of a prison is to reform prisoners through vocational training—right? At our national consultation on Shaping Safer Cities, Melvin Rivers of the Fortune Society told us that when he was sent to prison in New York, he was trained as a barber. When he got out, he tried to get a barber’s job. He found he needed a license, so he applied for one—and discovered he couldn’t get a license because he had been in prison! There are at least forty codes, laws, and regulations in the state of New York which similarly serve to keep ex-cons from going straight. Nor is New York unique among the states.

Prisons are so bad that recidivism is the rule rather than the exception. Some 40 per cent of all released inmates (75 per cent in some areas) are reimprisoned within five years, often graduating to worse crimes. Only 2 per cent of all inmates are exposed to any innovative treatment.

But I must part company from Mr. Wilson when he suggests that removing public intoxication and drug abuse from the criminal justice system would not improve it. Arrests for public drunkenness account for one-third of all arrests in the nation. . . . Banning vice drives up its price, creates a rich market for underworld operators, and makes it necessary—in the case of drugs—for addicts to finance their habits by stealing, to the tune of $50,000 to $100,000 a year for each addict. And, as many police chiefs and judges have pointed out, systematic bribes from pushers, pimps, and bookies are probably the most important source of police corruption.

The Alliance urges that non-victim crimes be transferred from the criminal justice system to more appropriate social-welfare and health systems—detoxification centers for alcoholics, drug treatment clinics and hospitals for drug addicts, for example—so that police, courts, and prisons will no longer be flooded with irrelevant social problems and will be able to use their too-limited resources in coping with violent crime. . . .

Harry Fleischman
National Alliance on Shaping Safer Cities
New York City



To the Editor:

James Q. Wilson rightly scourges the “Liberal Audience” for ignoring or belittling the crime problem. That liberal politicians, however, particularly candidates, deserve the same punishment is not evident. Several years ago Mr. Wilson rhetorically asked: “. . . What can be done about the increase in crime, short of locking up everyone under thirty years of age?” And answered: “On present evidence, the social scientist’s answer would have to be: not much” (the Public Interest, Fall 1966). Mr. Wilson now would give priority to “improving the criminal justice system as a mechanism for just and effective social control,” and would emphasize the criminal courts and the correctional system. I concur, but I fear the answer to Mr. Wilson’s old question is still “not much.” What might be done in these areas is by and large quite costly, of presently untested efficacy, and unlikely to have a visible short-term impact. Liberal candidates may have been resisting the temptation to promise much when they knew they could deliver little. Given the characteristic self-indulgence of left-liberal politicians in this regard, perhaps Mr. Wilson owes them special praise rather than blame.

Probably the single most promising source of quick relief to the ravages of violent street crime lies in Mr. Wilson’s (and others’) recommendation to “extend the use of chemical alternatives to heroin addiction,” e.g., methadone. It is hard enough to imagine this as an electioneering slogan at all, much less as one that would appeal to the Right, the Center, or to anyone else whose votes are being chased by liberal candidates. The “Liberal Audience” may have to assist in educating other audiences even to make such esoteric political discourse possible; and, as Mr. Wilson suggests, these educators certainly need some lessons first.

Eugene Bardach
University of California
Berkeley, California



James Q. Wilson writes:

I wish people who disagreed with me, especially scholars as distinguished as Hans Zeisel, would argue over what I did say instead of what I did not. Mr. Zeisel complains that I did not devote my article to ways in which the criminal justice system could be improved and then goes on to criticize the article as if I had devoted it to that subject. In an article concerned with the politics of crime, and not with its substance, I specifically said that this was “not the place to state in any detail what a responsible position could have been,” but then I did mention, in brief, a few points to suggest, though not to explain or defend, that position. . . .

I have set forth elsewhere my views on how to approach the crime problem, especially in my chapter of the book, Agenda for the Nation, edited by Kermit Gordon and published by the Brookings Institution. I have also discussed this matter in a paper written for the Committee for Economic Development and in other documents. If Mr. Zeisel can’t find copies of these, I would be happy to supply them for him. My COMMENTARY article was not an attempt to restate these views, but to explain why efforts to get the government to act responsibly on these matters were, for almost five years, met with moralistic slogans from the Right and suspicion and righteous denials from the Left.

But even the rebuttal offered by Mr. Zeisel to those references I did make to crime policies is misleading. Cutting off the flow of heroin into this country he treats as a “joke” on the grounds, it seems, that Anslinger and Hoover tried to do this and failed, and of course we all know the smiles that references to those names are supposed to produce. But the truth is that neither Anslinger nor Hoover was ever part of any serious attempt to deal with heroin importation—Anslinger rarely had more than a dozen agents abroad and they worked mostly on detecting foreign criminal syndicates, and the FBI did even less. Until recently, no real effort was made to induce our “allies,” France and Turkey, to act responsibly toward the heroin laboratories and poppy fields within their respective borders, and it is still an open question as to whether they are fully engaged in the effort to stop the chemical warfare that their citizens have been waging against the United States for many years.

The view of Ramsey Clark which Mr. Zeisel finds convincing—that heroin addiction should be placed in perspective because there were more opiate addicts in 1900 than there are today—reminds me of the views of others that poverty and segregation are not important issues because there was more of all that in 1900 than today.

As to my juxtaposing crime and campus unrest, Mr. Zeisel is right that I placed them together as issues about which many liberals failed to talk seriously, but he is not only wrong but mischievous to suggest that I implied that campus protest was “part” of “or similar” to the problem of predatory crime.

Eugene Bardach raises for me a more sobering point. He is right to point out that in other places I have expressed little optimism about the gains to be expected from a serious effort to improve the criminal justice system. The article I wrote in 1966 was a first effort to get people generally, and liberals in particular, to take a serious but responsible look at the crime problem. As Mr. Bardach will recall, I ended the piece with the thought that unless the Left tried to deal with this issue constructively, it would be seized by the Right (as it was) and that liberalism would become a notable victim of crime in the streets (which it very nearly has). Little did I suppose that taking a critical look at crime statistics and indicating the limits of public policy would be read by some as good reasons for doing nothing.

On some matters I have changed my mind since 1966. I take much more seriously today the role of heroin addiction in accounting for a significant part of the predatory crime problem and I have come to have a greater appreciation of the extent to which street crimes are committed by repeaters for whom our court and correctional systems have been failures.

The only point at which I disagree with Mr. Bardach is in his tentative assumption that liberal politicians stayed away from the crime issue because, as statesmen, they did not want to promise much when they could deliver so little. No doubt a few felt this way, but I think Mr. Bardach will agree that this self-denying ordinance is a too generous explanation for most. After all, a decent respect for the limits of governmental capacities did not prevent liberal politicians from promising an end to racism and poverty (wasn’t it Lyndon Johnson who said to the Congress, “We shall overcome”?) any more than it has kept conservative ones from assuring us that American military power is sufficient to any foreign objective we may have. The real test of statesmanship is the ability to do the right thing without having to promise the wrong thing.


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