A little bit more for the previous post. First check out this post about conservatives and crime by Adam Serwer.
It’s important to expand on why, especially in the late 1970s and 1980s, how much the ascendant conservative approach to crime involved a large prison population. Here’s the big quote from James Q. Wilson in the closing to his 1975 book, Thinking About Crime (my bold):
. . . some persons will shun crime even if we do nothing to deter them, while others will seek it out even if we do everything to reform them. Wicked people exist. Nothing avails except to set them apart from innocent people. And many people, neither wicked nor innocent, but watchful, dissembling, and calculating of their opportunities, ponder our reaction to wickedness as a cue to what they might profitably do. We have trifled with the wicked, made sport of the innocent, and encouraged the calculators. Justice suffers, and so do we all.
Go Team Social Science! I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the statement “wicked people exist” (when they were born?) and there’s nothing to be done about them other than to store them is neither rigorously thought out or proven, but it’s been the de facto approach to crime for the past 30 years.
By the way, there’s a lot of effort in preventing disorder from setting in for communities, but what is disorder? Since it is the core of the theory, I went ahead and assumed that these conservative social scientists would have a very rigorous and well-thought out definition of what constitutes disorder that isn’t just projecting class, ethnic and sexual biases onto outside populations. From James Q. Wilson’s Varieties of Police Behavior: the Management of Law and Rrder in Eight Communities (1968):
The patrolman confronting a citizen is especially aleter to two kinds of cues: those that signal danger and those that signal impropriety. A badly dressed, rough-talking person, especially one accompanied by friends and in his own neighborhood, is quickly seen as a potential threat-he may, out of his own hot temper or because of the need to “prove himself” in front of his buddies, pull a knife or throw a punch. A teenager hanging out on a street corner late at night, especially one dressed in an eccentric manner, a Negro wearing a “conk rag” (a piece of cloth tied around the head to hold flat hair being “processed” – that is, straightened), girls in short skirts and boys in long hair parked in a flash car talking loudly to friends on the curb, or interracial couples-all…
The patrolman believes with considerable justification that teenagers, Negros, and lower-income persons commit a disproportionate share of all reported crimes; being in those population categories at all makes one, statistically, more suspect than other persons; but to be on those categories and to behave unconventionally is to make oneself a prime suspect.
The word “and” in the last sentence is in italics in the original. It seems that behaving “unconventionally” forms a core part of the idea of disorder – but notice in the first paragraph how wearing a rag on one’s head while it is being straightened is strongly implied to being “unconventional” and thus disorderly – unconventional for whom?
[W]hat happened to the inevitable collapse of American society?
All through the 70s and 80s, and some way into the 90s, it was almost a given that all of America — or at least all of our central cities — would turn into something like the South Bronx, or worse. It was practically a cliche of popular culture; it was also a theme propounded solemnly and at great length by writers like Gertrude Himmelfarb, who insisted that only a return to traditional moral values could arrest our decline.
And then a funny thing happened. Values continued to shift: we kept on having premarital sex and getting divorces, gay and lesbian couples went out in public, relatively few Americans went to church (although a larger number claimed that they went.) Yet crime declined sharply, big cities (New York in particular) became safer than they had been in many decades, and in general society seemed to hold together.
I don’t think we really know why all that happened. But the failure of dystopia to appear on schedule is one of the remarkable good things about modern America.
This leads us to our last link, which may be my favorite. Bob Bennett, John J. DiIulio, Jr., and John P. Walters, Body Count: Moral Poverty and How to Win America’s War Against Crime and Drugs. (1996). From a review by Jerome Skolnick, The American Prospect, reviewing, 1997:
“America’s beleaguered cities,” the authors declare, “are about to be victimized by a paradigm shattering wave of ultraviolent, morally vacuous young people some call ‘the superpredators.’” They write: “A new generation of street criminals is upon us—the youngest, biggest, and baddest generation any society has ever known.” And they predict that the next generation will be even more predatory, with juvenile crime peaking in 2010….
Consider carefully the claims that the authors of Body Count make about prisons. “Virtually all convicted criminals who go to prison,” they write, “are violent offenders, repeat offenders, or repeat violent offenders.” “It is simply a myth,” they continue, “that our prison cells are filled with people who don’t belong there, or that we would somehow be safer if fewer people were in prison. The widespread circulation of that myth is the result of ideology masquerading as analysis.”
“Moral poverty,” by contrast, ignores such factors as racism, joblessness, inequality, and poverty and zeroes in only on “the near complete collapse of our character-forming institutions . . . in a free society, families, schools, and churches.” Consequently, the bonds of family must be “restored.” How do we achieve this restoration? “We believe,” the authors write, “the most obvious answer—and perhaps the only reliable answer—is a widespread renewal of religious faith and the strengthening of religious institutions.”
Here’s a solid prediction from the mid-1990s: If we don’t have a widespread renewal of religious faith then crime committed by “superpredators” would dominate, peaking in 2010. Looking out my window, I see falling crime statistics for a long time now and no roving gang of “pre-social” (their word!) superpredators.
For one explanation on what actually happened during that time period, check out this by Bruce Western.