Commentary Magazine

The Challenge of Crime by Henry Ruth and Kevin R. Reitz

The Challenge of Crime: Rethinking Our Response
by Henry Ruth and Kevin R. Reitz
Harvard. 374 pp. $35.00

This book offers many sensible, thoughtful suggestions on specific issues related to crime. Its authors call attention to some interesting crime-prevention and crime-reduction policies, accurately criticize certain antidrug programs like DARE and boot camps, and properly oppose the current tendency to convert every street crime into a federal offense.

Why, then, do I not like The Challenge of Crime as much as I should? Anyone reading it would immediately answer by pointing out that the authors are critical of me. But let me struggle, as best I can, to overcome that explanation. First of all, scholars regularly beat up on each other; that is how we earn our living, and I have been hit by much tougher authors than these. Second, Ruth and Reitz actually say some nice things about me on the way toward adopting their general view that I am a social menace.

My discomfort with this book arises from a different direction. Ruth and Reitz—the former has held several criminal-justice positions in the federal government, the latter teaches law at the University of Colorado—want to take control of what they think of as the sensible middle ground of crime policy, abjuring the ideological arguments of conservatives and liberals alike. That is a good idea, provided they can find the middle ground. To do so, they must first reject the ideologues, which is where I come in. I am the Stereotypical Conservative: my 1973 book, Thinking About Crime, although “brilliant” and “sophisticated,” argues in favor of a “conservative crime-response program” for which I am an “apologist.”

Unfortunately, Ruth and Reitz do not identify a Stereotypical Liberal, though they do speak vaguely of a “liberal” tendency to favor rehabilitation, indeterminate sentencing laws, and court rules that make it tougher to convict offenders. It is true enough that some liberals (as well as some conservatives) have favored these policies, just as some conservatives (as well as some liberals) have favored sending criminals to prison. But public policy toward crime has moved away from those starkly stated views. In fact, what Ruth and Reitz have found is not the middle ground but a slightly revised liberal position about crime. It is liberalism purged of some (but not all) of its extreme claims.



There were two main issues in the 1970’s when I first wrote about crime. The first involved the rival claims of, on the one hand, economists who believed that crime could be deterred by means of sanctions and, on the other hand, sociologists who believed that criminals could be rehabilitated. That tension still exists, but in general the economists have won. Thinking About Crime was conceived by me as an effort to deter rehabilitation and rehabilitate deterrence.

At the time, I did not have a lot to go on; there were only two or three decent studies of deterrence, all supportive, and several articles criticizing rehabilitation. Drawing on my understanding of human nature, I was convinced that deterrence would have a greater influence than rehabilitation, though I also thought that some programs of rehabilitation would work for some people; in the second edition of Thinking About Crime, I discussed those possibilities.

Since the time I wrote, there have been many more studies of both deterrence and rehabilitation. Despite the important technical problems involved in estimating the precise effects of deterrence—highlighted in a report by the National Academy of Science—it is now widely understood to work in a significant way. As for rehabilitation programs, their effect has been shown to be, on average, rather small.

Ruth and Reitz hardly mention deterrence. But they do spend a lot of time on rehabilitation, so much so as to leave the impression that this is the path to follow. It is as if the intellectual and policy arguments of the 1970’s and 1980’s had never occurred. They also criticize incapacitation—that is, reducing crime simply by taking offenders off the street—and many of their objections are quite sound. But they say little about deterring people from committing crime in the first place.



If the first issue in the 1970’s was deterrence vs. rehabilitation, the second issue was prevention—specifically, whether society could prevent crime by locating and fixing its “root causes.” I believed that such an effort was pointless. We did not have a very good idea what those causes were, and with respect to those that might exist, there were no programs that could significantly moderate their effects.

Ruth and Reitz seem to think that, in the 1970’s, criminologists were generally in favor of cutting crime by improving the economy, and that I am at fault for having resisted this view. But criminologists did not then write about economic improvement as a cure for crime. The leading causal theories were these: that crime was learned through association with other criminals; that it represented a repudiation of middle-class life; that it was picked up from parents; and that it resulted from a desire for money combined with an inability to earn it. Scholars identifying these diverse “causes” were, for the most part, quite candid in saying that they did not know how to correct them.

I sympathized with their predicament. How do you teach boys not to learn crime from other boys (and how did those other boys learn crime to begin with)? If middle-class culture is to blame, do we abolish it? If crime is absorbed from parents, how can government teach parents to do a better job? What exactly differentiates boys who want money but cannot figure out how to earn it from the vast majority who find that earning money is not very hard?

Since 1973, we have learned a great deal more about why certain individuals are more likely than others to commit crime. We now know that some biological factors, including intelligence and impulsiveness, are at work, as are many environmental ones, such as single-parent or discordant families and a weak sense of neighborhood cohesiveness. Although it is still hard to say what to do with this new knowledge, helpful experiments have suggested the value of certain ideas. Among them are nurse visitations for young unwed mothers and the guidance supplied by Big Brother and Big Sister programs.

One thing we have not learned since 1973, however, is that rising unemployment pushes up crime rates. The economy may play a small role, but it is so small as to be almost unmeasurable.

Ruth and Reitz pay no attention to these findings, though they do acknowledge the value of some experimental crime-prevention programs. When they treat the causes of crime, it is by means of convoluted, throwaway comments, instructing us (for example) not to drink that the “assumed” moral chaos of parents “has nothing to do with economic poverty”—the insinuation being that economic factors may be the culprit to look for after all. It would be nice if their book, with its 69 pages of notes, had contained a reference to the empirical work done by scholars like Sarah McLanahan and Robert Sampson showing that, independently of parental income and even race, single-parent families contribute significantly to delinquency. It would be even nicer if the authors had taken a hard look at the findings of Philip Cook, Richard Freeman, and Peter Reuter on the effect of low incomes on crime. It would be nicer still if they considered the summary of the evidence that the late Richard Herrnstein and I presented in Crime and Human Nature (1985). And it would be a great kindness if they had quoted me accurately on the poverty-crime link, about which I was quite agnostic. But no.



Instead of all this, what Ruth and Reitz emphasize is that America relies too much on prisons, is deficient in enacting gun-control programs, and ought to be kinder to drug dealers. They also complain about racial profiling and so-called “zero tolerance” policing. Here, then, we may at last have discovered the Liberal Stereotype to counterbalance me. It is Ruth and Reitz.

An entire chapter of The Challenge of Crime is devoted to prisons as the “conservative” response to crime. (Since the overwhelming majority of Americans support the use of prisons, I suppose they are all conservatives.) Prisons can certainly be overused, as they are in the case of many arrested for crack cocaine; but one cannot hold that imprisonment is wrong without discussing deterrence, which, as I have already noted, Ruth and Reitz barely do. Their negligence is especially odd since the British scholar David Farrington has published several articles suggesting that our use of prison helps explain why the burglary rate in the United States, once higher than England’s, is now so much lower. Indeed, victim surveys show that burglary is less common in the United States than in Australia, Canada, England, and New Zealand, and that except for homicide, the rate for almost every major crime is lower here than it is in England.

One reason Ruth and Reitz dislike incarceration is that it is supported by people who—mistakenly, in their view—believe the Uniform Crime Reports, a source compiled by the FBI from data reported to the police. Instead, they prefer the victim surveys conducted by the Census Bureau. But those valuable surveys, which did not begin until 1973, have their own faults. For example, they undercount assaults, and they do not count crimes against businesses.

The simple fact is that neither the one source nor the other is correct on every point; taken together, however, they provide as good a view of crime as we are likely to have. And on one matter they are both quite clear: during the 1970’s, crime rates, however measured, rose rapidly. It is relatively unimportant to know the exact magnitude of the increase; it is more important to know that in those years the public was right to fear crime. If prison rates began to rise as well, that was not the result of a misplaced trust in a flawed source of data but in response to a very real increase in crime.

Ruth and Reitz also attack aggressive policing, finding especially bad examples of it in New York City’s “quality of life” campaign under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and in the emergence all over the country of racial profiling. If by racial profiling we mean using race as the only or even the chief reason for stopping a person, clearly it is wrong. But if African Americans are stopped more frequently than whites because they are more likely to commit crime, then race is a factor, but not the decisive factor, in the stop. There is a world of difference between the two.

I wish we knew how often bad profiling has occurred and how often tolerable profiling has occurred, but we do not. We need serious inquiries (at least one has been done in Sacramento, California), not popular headline-grabbers. The police have to separate the indefensible from the tolerable, but they do not get much help from writers who claim that if blacks are more likely to be stopped for speeding than whites, then the police are by definition doing a lousy job.

The questions to be asked in any comparative study are obvious. How much faster than the speed limit are people in each group driving? How old are the drivers? How many look like possible suspects? What information, if any, do the police have about people wanted for crimes, people on probation and parole, people suspected of drug trafficking? Since Ruth and Reitz, like the authors they cite, have resolutely declined to interview the police themselves, we are left with the impression that today’s cops are all racist monsters. I find that hard to believe.



At the end of a favorable review, many a critic will toss in a few negative comments to show that he is fair-minded. Now that I have written an unfavorable review, let me (in vain) add some pleasant thoughts. As I stated at the outset, Ruth and Reitz have many helpful suggestions to offer. On almost every page, I found some argument that struck me as useful.

The problem with this book is its failure to deal with the central problem of criminal-justice policy: namely, what to do about offenders? In America, we deprive them of their freedom both as a way of expressing society’s moral condemnation of crime and as a way of deterring others from committing crimes in the first place. Although prison is sometimes overused, it is uniquely appropriate for a free country. We do not torture or brainwash or manipulate offenders; we take away their freedom. Our society is more serious about this than are some other democratic societies, like England, where public opinion counts for less. As a result, we have a lower crime rate, and enjoy greater confidence in our government.


About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

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