Criminology James Q. Wilson
Brian Forst
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0156


James Q. Wilson (b. 1931–d. 2012) was, by many accounts, the most influential criminal justice scholar of the 20th century. He was a renowned public intellectual and prolific author of books and essays, which appealed to a wide audience of practitioners and the general public, if not always to scholars. Broadly known as a prominent political scientist, his writings on styles of policing in the 1960s and on bureaucracies in the 1970s established him no less as a preeminent scholar on law enforcement. His 1974 essay, “Crime and the Criminologists,” on how criminologists think about crime, was controversial and game-changing; although this cannot be proven, it may have contributed to the blossoming of more academically eclectic criminal justice programs in colleges and universities throughout the United States. His writings on the biological aspects of crime and on the moral sense and development of character were more controversial still, receiving widespread acclaim from some sources and ridicule from others. He served on several major commissions and panels on crime and justice, encouraged field experimentation in criminal justice research, and was acknowledged as an enthusiastic mentor and friend to many criminologists.

Epistemology and the Nature of Crime

Wilson wrote extensively about crime: its nature, sources, effects on society, and what to do about it. One of his two most widely read essays, on how to think about crime (the other essay, “Broken Windows,” Wilson and Kelling 1982, cited under Policing), appeared originally under the title, “Crime and the Criminologists,” in the conservative magazine, Commentary (July 1974, pp. 47–53). Wilson rebranded the essay “Thinking about Crime” and it became a central focus and title chapter of a book, first in 1975, then with revisions and additional chapters in a second edition, Wilson 1983. In both versions, he criticized the way criminologists had thought about crime, arguing that it was unscientific, unsupported by systematic evidence, and of little or no value to criminal justice practitioners. He argued that economists were using more theoretically coherent, empirically supported, and policy-relevant models for dealing with crime, mostly following theories of rational incentives and deterrence, as well as community protection through incapacitation. Wilson and Cook 1985 argued that economic policy should be distinct from criminal justice policy, especially regarding the unemployment-crime connection. Farrington, et al. 1986 proposed a research strategy of understanding offender behavior through longitudinal analysis. Wilson and Abrahamse 1992 addressed the question “Does crime pay?” and found different answers for hard-core and less serious offenders. Wilson 1997 found evidence of deterrence in property crime rates by comparing sanctions and crime rates in England and America.

  • Farrington, David P., Lloyd E. Ohlin, and James Q. Wilson. 1986. Understanding and controlling crime: Toward a new research strategy. New York: Springer-Verlag.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4612-4940-5

    This book reports the findings of a study group formed to identify research needed to deal more effectively with crime by understanding offender behavior through longitudinal analysis. The authors propose a strategy combining small cohort studies of high-risk groups with a variety of experimental treatment approaches. They identify families and schools as prime targets of prevention measures, and consider as well proposals for reorganizing the juvenile courts and the effects of imprisonment.

  • Wilson, James Q. 1983. Thinking about crime. Rev. ed. New York: Basic Books.

    Based on an essay originally appearing under the title “Crime and the Criminologists” in the conservative magazine Commentary (July 1974, pp. 47–53), this was one of the most widely read books on crime and justice in the 20th century. The chapters deal with an array of topics from crime causes (pp. 13–57) and Policing (pp. 61–114) to public policy (pp. 117–220, 250–260) and the American culture (pp. 223–249). The book opens with a chapter explaining the paradox of crime in a nation of plenty and the crime explosion of the 1960s (pp. 13–25), distinguishing between causes that are popular but lacking in strong empirical support, like poverty and racism, and causes that are more well-supported, especially age demographics and the decline of social order attributable to drugs and welfare dependency.

  • Wilson, James Q. 1997. Criminal justice in England and America. The Public Interest 126 (Winter): 3–14.

    In this essay, Wilson describes sharp rises in property crimes in England and declines in the United States over the 1980s and 1990s and explains why these changes occurred. The explanation, says Wilson, is deterrence. England had sharply reduced the punishment for property crime while the United States had increased it. This change can be explained by observing that punishment in the United States was determined by elected officials and in England by appointed ones.

  • Wilson, James Q., and Allan Abrahamse. 1992. Does crime pay? Justice Quarterly 9.3: 357–377.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418829200091431

    This article expands on Wilson and Cook 1985 by analyzing legitimate and illegal previous earnings among prison inmates in California, Michigan, and Texas. They found that crime paid less than legitimate work for mid-level offenders, but much less for high-level inmates. The most serious offenders either exaggerated the benefits of crime or looked for intangible payoffs. The findings suggest that merely giving jobs to high-rate offenders is likely to reduce their recidivism rates. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Wilson, James Q., and Philip J. Cook. 1985. Unemployment and crime: What is the connection? The Public Interest 76 (Spring): 3–8.

    In this essay, Wilson and Cook take issue with claims that unemployment is a strong predictor of crime. They review the evidence and conclude that the link is weak at best, and especially weak between unemployment and violent crime. Low unemployment is a worthy economic goal, but not the most effective way to reduce crime: “Crime control is not a very good reason for designing national economic policy, and the Joint Economic Committee should stop claiming that it is” (p. 8).

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