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James Q. Wilson: Character and Criminal Justice

On March 2, James Q. Wilson, one of America’s pre-eminent social scientists and conservative thinkers, died at the age of 80. It’s hard to think of anyone who had a greater impact on the way Americans think about crime and punishment than Wilson. I know he shaped my thinking on the subject and, thus, helped refine the vision for Prison Fellowship.

Wilson is probably best known for a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article he co-authored with George L. Kelling, entitled “Broken Windows.”

At the time, America was in the midst of a decade-long explosion in crime rates. The conventional response was more and better-armed police and more prisons. Wilson and Kelling turned this paradigm on its head by arguing that the key to stopping violent crime lay in preserving public order instead of reacting forcefully after the fact.

They compared the lack of order in American cities to a “building with a few broken windows.” Just as failure to fix these windows encouraged vandalism, squatting, and littering, tolerating minor offenses against public order invited greater offenses.

While many critics scoffed at their ideas, the New York Transit Police and, later, the NYPD put these ideas into practice. They targeted things like graffiti, public drinking, and turnstile-jumping, which led to success in preventing major offenses on the subways.

The emphasis on “quality of life” and public order is credited with an unprecedented drop in crime rates: today, it is statistically safer to walk in Central Park at night than it was in 1950.

Four years later, I came across another groundbreaking work by Wilson, this time co-authored with Richard Herrnstein, called Crime and Human Nature. After looking at the data, they determined that crime is caused by the lack of moral training in the morally formative years. Now, that may seem obvious to you, but back in the 1980s, no social scientist was saying that. The common refrain was that crime was caused by poverty, racism, and social and environmental factors.

Yet in one stroke, Wilson and Herrnstein confirmed what I had been sensing for some time in our prison ministry: that we were losing a whole generation to crime — young people who had no moral grounding. We couldn’t address soaring crime rates unless we first addressed the breakdown of morality and the family.

That realization that crime was a moral problem was a major factor in spurring me to begin the worldview ministry that resulted in BreakPoint and the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

One of the things that struck me the most about Wilson’ work was how much it was in keeping with a Christian worldview. As David Brooks wrote in the New York Times, Wilson wrote forcefully about the importance of character-building and virtue for a society.

Wilson’s emphasis on preserving order is reminiscent of Paul’s writing in Romans 13. In fact, the word translated “sword” there is the rough equivalent of the gun worn by the cop on the beat. It also brings to mind Augustine’s defining peace between men as “well-ordered concord,” what he called tranquillitas ordinis.

Wilson was truly a giant in the field. I expect and I hope, his books will continue to shape our thinking on so many crucial issues. He will be sorely missed. But his insights will live on.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.

Publication dateMarch 8, 2012

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