Posted on July 28, 2019

What We Know, Don’t Know, and Don’t Want to Know about Crime

Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, March 1996

Crime, by James Q. Wilson & Joan Petersilia (eds.), ICS Press, 1995, 650 pp.

reviewed by Thomas Jackson

Crime, by James Q. Wilson & Joan Petersilia

Ever since crime started rising sharply in the 1960s, it has been a subject of increasingly intensive study by criminologists. Crime, edited by two of the most highly-regarded authorities on the subject, James Q. Wilson of UCLA and Joan Petersilia of UC Irvine, is a collection of 20 scholarly essays by experts, summarizing the current academic understanding of street crime. Although the authors either ignore the implications of race or speak of it sotto voce, it is clear that criminologists are shedding some of the social science illusions from previous decades. Among their findings:

  • Criminals almost always share certain characteristics, both genetic and environmental.
  • Poverty and unemployment do not cause crime.
  • Rehabilitation does not work.
  • The only practical benefit of prison is that it keeps criminals from committing more crime.
  • Drug treatment, “crime prevention,” and alternatives to imprisonment do not work.
  • Early “intervention” to reform juvenile delinquents does not work.

What this boils down to is that certain people are going to commit crimes no matter what society does. Only middle age — not punishment — cures them.

The Criminal Personality

The personality of the typical criminal is already established by age two or three. He is aggressive, refractory, impulsive, unaffectionate, and difficult to rear. By contrast, a child with a sunny, winning disposition is very unlikely to become a criminal. As one of the authors explains, “antisocial personality almost never shows up in adulthood (barring brain injury or disease) without having been foreshadowed by antisocial behavior in childhood.”

Criminals tend to have sex and try drugs at an early age, and start offending when they are young, breaking windows and setting fires before they are teenagers. Nearly every career criminal had a long juvenile record, and nearly every juvenile with a long record becomes an adult criminal. These are the chronic offenders who terrorize society; about six percent of the male population accounts for 50 percent of all arrests. These same proportions have been found in other countries.

The association between low IQ and crime is now beyond doubt; the typical offender’s score is 10 to 15 points below normal. Low IQ is not, however, decisive, but must usually be combined with the typical criminal personality. One telling indicator of future deviance is a school record that is even worse than a child’s low IQ would predict. Disobedience and impulsiveness combine with dim-wittedness to make bad students, who often become offenders. Interestingly, the larger the family, the more likely that the children will be delinquent.

Consistent though these criminal characteristics are, they are not sure predictors. Many refractory, low-IQ children do not become predators. These traits indicate a strong propensity for crime but only a minority act on it. It is extremely likely that these characteristics are hereditary. Studies in Scandinavia have shown that children of criminals, when given up for adoption, are considerably more likely than other children to become criminals. Curiously, this link is stronger for property crime than for violent crime. If any given criminal has a twin, the twin is more likely than average also to be a criminal. If he has an identical twin, the chances are even greater.

There is one genetic condition that essentially proves that crime can have genetic causes. As Richard Herrnstein points out in this collection, men who are born with an extra male chromosome are about ten times more likely to be arrested than men born with just one Y chromosome. This condition does not run in families and can turn up as an abnormality in families with no criminal history.

Recent studies reported in this volume have found basic physiological correlates to crime. “Mesomorphs,” or well-muscled people, are more likely to have typically criminal personalities and to be offenders. Criminals also tend to have low resting pulse rates and to be unresponsive to sudden stimuli. Electro-encephalogram (EEG) readings of the brain show unusual rates of theta or slow alpha waves in the brain, which indicate low levels of arousal. EEG abnormalities of this kind, which appear to be congenital, are found in 25 to 50 percent of violent criminals but in only five to 20 percent of non-offenders. As one of the authors explains:

Criminals are hypothesized to be biologically underaroused. One consequence of this underarousal is a lack of fear, which allows them to more easily initiate risky or dangerous behaviors . . . Biological underarousal may also lead to stimulation-seeking behaviors such as gang involvement and criminal activity that, in turn, raise their arousal to more optimal, ‘normal’ levels.

Abnormalities in the frontal cortex of the brain are also associated with crime and the aggressive personality. Cortical dysfunction can be identified through computerized tomography, positron emission tomography, and cerebral regional blood flow analysis, and is particularly likely to be found in violent offenders, including rapists. Low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin are also predictors of impulsiveness and violence.

Complications in pregnancy can disrupt neural development in the fetus in ways that predispose a child towards crime. Some of these complications can cause visible abnormalities, such as ears that are located low on the head.

The 19th century Italian criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, taught that criminals show distinct mental and physical stigmata. He is now generally thought to be discredited, but new discoveries may yet prove him right.

We already know that blacks have lower IQs than whites and are more likely to be mesomorphs. An obvious area of fruitful study would be to determine whether the other biological indicators of crime are unevenly distributed among races. The research is yet to be done, probably for fear of what it might reveal.

Progress in the Field

Of course, even without data on racial differences, these findings have tremendous value in steering society away from liberal uplift policies that have failed. For decades, sociologists have pointed out that criminals grow up in poor, chaotic, drug-sodden communities, have bad role models, often lack fathers, are likely to be abused, and go to bad schools. All this is true, and the conventional view was that these circumstances made little boys into criminals regardless of genotype.

As this collection shows, criminologists are slowly beginning to note the possibility that criminals may well be produced in exactly the same way as the miserable neighborhoods in which they flourish: by incompetent, irresponsible people who both degrade their surroundings and pass destructive traits on genetically to their children. Although some of the writers in Crime use euphemisms like “personal characteristics” to describe what causes both bad neighborhoods and bad people, there is at least a hint of hereditarianism in this book.

On the other hand, environment cannot be discounted. Some people are strongly drawn to crime, and degenerate ghetto neighborhoods cannot but influence their choices. Many blacks and Hispanics and even some whites are now born with the gruesome double disadvantage of an unfavorable genotype and an environment fashioned by people just like themselves.

The Failure of ‘Intervention’

What can be done about any of this? The authors in this collection are virtually unanimous in concluding that rehabilitation and crime prevention have not worked and probably never will. In the concluding essay of the book, co-editor James Q. Wilson writes:

‘Prevention, if it can be made to work at all, must start very early in life, perhaps as early as the first two or three years, and given the odds it faces . . . be massive in scope.’ He writes that current fads like midnight basketball and summer jobs for young thugs will have no effect on crime. The idea that lack of jobs causes crime is increasingly untenable, since criminal proclivities are well established long before anyone needs a job.

Another author writes that “for all the lip service paid to prevention, there is still very little hard evidence regarding techniques that work, or their expected payoff.” In fact, some efforts to identify potential juvenile delinquents and steer them away from crime have back-fired; cajolings from do-gooders can make rebellious children even worse.

Once people start committing crimes, there seems to be no way to persuade them to stop. “In the 1970s,” writes one author, “a series of reviews concluded that the available evidence was insufficient to support the claim that any one particular form of treatment was more effective than any other, including no treatment at all.” Criminologists have quietly set aside the idea that offenders can be rehabilitated. Some approaches may reduce recidivism to a small degree but a technique that was reported to have worked once may never work again. Drug treatment programs appear to be equally futile; even when they are run in prisons on captive audiences, they reform virtually no one. Other approaches introduced with much fanfare, have turned out to be duds. For example, it was long believed that probation failed to promote good behavior only because probation officers had too many cases. It is now known that intensive probation with lots of contact and counselling has practically no effect. Lots of street lighting and public places designed as “defensible space” have not worked as promised. Boot camps, community service, and house arrest with monitoring devices have all been tried as measures short of prison that might keep young offenders on the straight and narrow; they do not. Some people, especially in the uplift trade, still manage to work up futile enthusiasms for such exotica as “parent management training programs” that are supposed to teach unregenerate parents how to rear sterling children. Among criminologists, faith in “social engineering” is rapidly dying.

The Last Twenty Years

Every passing year helps snuff it out. During the 1960s, when crime first began to skyrocket, silly social theories contributed to an actual decrease in incarceration rates. There was more crime but it was not punished but “treated.” This mistake was corrected in the next decade, and the incarceration rate has risen 350 percent since 1970. There are now over one million people in American jails — four times as many as in 1970 — and the average prison time served per violent crime tripled from 1975 to 1989.

Murder in Black and White

According to Crime, the equivalent of about two percent of the male workforce are now behind bars, and close to five percent are on probation or parole. This means that for about every twelve men with jobs there is one man under supervision by the courts. The figures are worse for blacks. There are only two working black men for every one in jail or under court supervision, and for blacks aged 18 to 34, the ratio is an astonishing one to one.

Robbery Chart

The last ten years should have been a period of sharply declining crime rates, and for two reasons. “Get-tough” sentencing keeps criminals out of mischief for a long time. Also, there was a drop in the number of men aged 16 to 22 — the peak crime years — which should have reduced crime. As several of the authors point out, the fact that overall crime rates declined only marginally indicates that there was a hugely increased propensity to commit crime. Crack cocaine, which first became widely available in 1985, seems to have accounted for much of this increase.

The same year also marked a spectacular rise in rates of juvenile violence, especially homicide, though the increase was largely among blacks (see top chart). For blacks aged 14 to 17, the homicide rate climbed from about 32 per 100,000 in 1984 to over 110 per 100,000 in 1991 — more than tripling in just seven years. This, too, appears to be closely associated with drug violence, and young killers are particularly volatile. Adults kill strangers about 20 percent of the time, but juveniles do so 34 percent of the time.

At first blush, since nothing prevents crime and nothing rehabilitates criminals, the current practice of locking people up for a long time seems sensible. “Three strikes and you’re out” (mandatory life imprisonment for the third violent felony conviction) also seems sensible. But, as the authors point out, it may not be. Whether they are jailed, put on probation, “treated,” or just ignored, almost all criminals voluntarily stop offending after a certain age. For every ten active burglars at age 17, nine have retired — at least from burglary — by age 40 (see bottom chart).

A life sentence means supporting, at a current cost of $25,000 a year, a dodderer who is no longer dangerous. Given the assumption that rehabilitation does not work (and the related assumption that jail time does not “harden” young offenders who would otherwise go straight) the best use for jail would be as a ten-year holding pen for the 16-year-olds who have shown every sign that they are among the incorrigible six percent who account for half the mayhem. As currently practiced, “three strikes and you’re out” is likely to apply to repeat offenders in their mid-20s, who may already be approaching retirement.

What should the police be doing about crime? Here, too, this book makes a strong case for positions that run counter to fashion. For example, many city police departments have made a fetish of cutting response time to emergency calls. It takes an enormous amount of money and effort to reduce it from, say, seven minutes to four, but the number of additional arrests is likely to be small. Robbery and assault may be over in a few seconds, and even in the case of burglary, a startled homeowner is not likely to call the police until he has secured his property and the malefactor is blocks away.

Another misguided view is that all parts of a city deserve the same amount of police protection. In fact, there are plenty of places the police need never go. Although not all crimes are as concentrated as this, during one year in Minneapolis, 100 percent of the robberies happened at just two percent of the city’s addresses. The best thing to do with uniformed police is to have them patrol a city’s “hot spots,” where crime is most frequent. Studies show that the most efficient way to discourage street crime is to have officers show up at frequent but erratic intervals.

Crack Cocaine

Crime contains a fascinating chapter on illegal drugs, which leaves no doubt that they are associated with crime. A majority of offenses are committed under the influence, often of alcohol or a combination of alcohol and something else. In Manhattan, urine tests show that three fourths of all criminals were using illegal drugs when they committed their crimes. Crack users tend to be far more violent than heroin or marijuana users, and the profits in the trade are so high that some dealers are willing to kill competitors.

Ever since the appearance of crack, the nation has put a huge effort into controlling drugs. There are now one million drug arrests per year. More than half of all federal prisoners and about 30 percent of state prisoners are drug offenders. The enforcement effort swallows up $13 billion in federal money alone and untold billions from the states.

It has been impossible to wipe out either supply or demand, so we still have a thriving drug underworld. Moreover, locking up dealers does little good, since dealing is different from other crimes. If police jail a robber this does not open up a profitable market niche that was previously closed, but this is exactly what happens with dealers. If a dozen are swept off the streets a dozen more spring up to take their places.

Should we give up on enforcement, and legalize cocaine? The two authors of the chapter on drugs are militantly agnostic: “The effects of cocaine legalization would be so numerous, so profound, and so unpredictable that any strongly expressed opinion on the subject must reflect some mix of insufficient intellectual humility and simple bluff.”

Legalization would surely increase consumption, but by how much? Should cocaine be controlled, like prescription medicine, or should it be sold in grocery stores? Should the legal price be high, as it is now, or low? Even if the legal price were low and this reduced property crime committed by addicts who needed money, mere consumption seems to stimulate crime. With more people smoking it, would there be more crime or less? As the authors point out, crack addiction is horrible — the plight of crack babies is even more horrible — so the unknown benefits of legalization would have to be substantial to justify an increase in addiction.

No one even knows the best way to enforce prohibition. Going after drug “king-pins” raises the street price, but that may only make addicts more violently desperate for money. It may be best to leave “king-pins” alone so that the supply is high and the price low, but chase dealers off the streets so that crack is hard to find and difficult to get. This might discourage new users but keep addicts supplied at a reasonable price. On the other hand, marijuana and heroin can be substitutes for crack and seem to provoke less violence. Perhaps it would be best to keep them cheap and crack expensive so that users will switch. Then again, short-term effects of price changes may be different from long-term effects. No one knows; the police stumble along in the dark.

Schools, Gangs, Race

Some of the chapters on other subjects are equally interesting. A specialist on crime in schools proposes that high school be voluntary rather than compulsory. It is impossible to teach anything to dim, crime-prone boys who are in school against their wills. In fact, they often cause so much trouble it is impossible to teach anything to anyone. The author guesses that some tens of thousands of the worst cases would leave school if they could, which would be an unqualified blessing. He does not think they would then go on a crime binge. They are already committing crimes, and juvenile offending is not much higher when school is out than when it is in session.

Like the others, the chapter on gang crime concludes that “intervention” has no effect. Gangs have their own cycles of violence that have nothing to do with enforcement efforts. When the killing gets out of hand, even psychopaths get scared and declare cease-fires. If the cease-fire happens to coincide with a much-touted anti-gang campaign, the same technique will be tried in some other city but to no effect. The author argues that since gangs thrive on enemies, any specifically anti-gang effort or police unit will strengthen gang solidarity and increase crime.

Street gangs are on the rise. By 1992 there were approximately 9,000 gangs with 400,000 members operating in 769 cities. In 1970 a far smaller number was operating in only 101 cities. The author notes that gang members are “principally but not exclusively minority,” and even writes about the distinctive organization of Asian gangs, but seems to see no connection between this new plague and lax immigration policies.

This is typical of the book’s blind spots. There is an occasional mention of high black crime rates, but Hispanic criminals are lumped in with whites. There is no attempt to explain why crime rates differ by race, and not one word about interracial crime. For all the reader might know, blacks never rape or mug whites.

Willful ignorance limits thought. The increasingly wide-spread conclusion that prevention and rehabilitation do not work may be correct, but has anyone tested the effects by race? That whites commit violent crime at only one tenth the black rate says something about racial characteristics. It may be that treatments that fail with blacks would succeed with whites (or Asians). Fear of imprisonment may be greater for whites than for blacks, since jails are full of underclass blacks. Probation may therefore be more effective punishment for whites than for blacks.

The rise in crime rates, especially among adolescents, seems to baffle the experts. One simple explanation is the rising percentage of non-whites. At the same time, the ruthlessly dysgenic effect of large-scale welfare cannot help but increase crime. The army of enemies reared by “the great society” and its successors is on the march. The only effective prevention is probably selective birth control, but Crime has never heard of eugenics.

It takes no special insight to note these things, but even the most obvious ideas are beyond the reach of closed minds. In the meantime, the number of young men is increasing again. Things will get worse.