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The James Q Wilson Factor

March 30th, 2008 by Celeste Fremon


In Sunday’s LA Times Opinion section,
famous conservative criminology prof, James Q. Wilson, is once again trotting out his contention that locking up masses of people is a fabulously effective crime-fighting tactic. This time Wilson busily opines that the fact that 1 in every 100 American adults is behind bars, and 1 in 9 African American men between the ages of 20 to 34 is locked up (as revealed by the recently released Pew Center on the States’ study)…..isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Aside from the jaw-dropping level of cynicism required for such a perspective, it doesn’t hold water.

For years, Wilson (AKA Mr. Broken Windows Theory) has attempted to draw a straight line between incarceration patterns and crime patterns, but to do so he has to cherry-pick his studies and statistics. I’d launch a study-filled counter argument but fortunately, Robert Gordon writing for the New Republic, has done it for me here.

PS: Before I turn you over to Wilson and Gordon,
a couple of facts and figures: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics drug offenders account for about 25 percent of local jail inmates, 21 percent of state prisoners, and 55 percent of federal prisoners. Since 1980 the number of drug offenders in state prisons has increased by 1,200 percent, more than four times the increase in violent offenders.

And have our drug use, abuse and sales stats gone down a commensurate 1200 percent in that time? Has this crazy incarceration binge reduced the number of drug users, gangs and gang members? You do the math.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, prison, prison policy | 34 Comments »

34 Responses

  1. Polock Says:

    Got Jails?

  2. Woody Says:

    I did the math and found that no prisoner behind bars is out on the streets committing crimes. Everyone can pick whatever study they want, and studies can be biased, but use some common sense. What I get sick of hearing is about criminals who were given probation or released early and then they commit some heinous crime within a short time.

  3. richard locicero Says:

    Yeah well do the math and ask if the incareration rate is sustainable given the resources available and ask if it makes sense to spend more on prisons than on higher education. And don’t tell me that you can cut costs by not “coddling” criminals. There’s a little thing called the 8th Amdt and “Cruel and Unusual Punishment” which is being used by judges to take over systems (see Texas for example) and mandate releases or spending more. And guess what? Usually the choice is early release. You went to “One of the Best Business Schools” so put that beuatiful mind to work and figure it out!

  4. Woody Says:

    We could take all the money not being used for border enforcement and apply that to housing illegals, the costs of lives and property lost because of prisoners released early and apply that to longer prison terms, and the money being wasted on schools that never made a positive difference in the lives of these thugs and apply that to those who were never taught to make an honest living. Then, our costs are covered.

    Anyway, isn’t it you guys who think that government spending, no matter what kind, is good because it goes back into the economy? Building prisons creates jobs, and, better yet, most of our construction trade would already be housed in the prisons to do it.

  5. richard locicero Says:

    Yes spending creates jobs and, since a prison guard position requires only a HS diploma and pays a middle class wage, new jails are hot properties in rural Calif. where such positions are scarce. Now – question for you Which activity by the state generates more economic activity?

    Spend a billion on a prison?

    Spend a billion on state water projects?

    spend a billion on new roads and transit systems?

    Even you should see the point.

  6. Woody Says:

    I didn’t say that I agreed with the philosophy that government spending is justified by its impact on the economy. That comes from you guys who have used it to justify payments to welfare moms. If you want to get down to real economics, then take a lesson from the likes of Saddam Hussein and the Chinese…a bullet is cheaper than a prison cell.

    Rather than blaming prisons for holding criminals, start taking a look at liberal social policies that have created more criminals.

  7. Randy Paul Says:


  8. WBC Says:

    Since we’re all aware of the Drew St/Glassell Park incidents, a front page L A Times story from yesterday 3/30, gives one example of when our justice system doesn’t work: “For more than a decade, the Satellite House, as it’s known in the neighborhood, was the center of the drug trade on two-block Drew Street, where dealers and gang members have operated with near-impunity for years, police said…

    “Occupying the house until recently was Maria ‘Chata” Leon and her family.

    “An illegal immigrant and mother of 13, Leon has a lengthy arrest record and three convictions for drug-related crimes — for which she’s served no prison time, according to court documents…

    “Police said Leon, 44, and her extended family were deeply involved in the drug trade that has made Drew Street among L. A.’s most notorious.

    “The Leons — and members of several other immigrant families….whom authorities have charged with criminal acts — hail from the town of Tlalchapa in the state of Guerrero, which has a reutation of one of Mexico’s most violent regions. Police estimate that dozens of these extended families belong to the Avenues gang… (history of their collective immigration, starting in the 70′s)…

    “Maria Leon…was 21 and destitute when she showed up in 1985…She was arrested at least 14 times dating to 1985… but she never seemed to spend much time in jail.

    “In 1994, Leon was arrested for narcotics possession, police records show. She was given diversion and the case was dismissed. The next year, she was sentenced to jail and probation for selling drugs.

    “Over the years, Leon had 13 children with five men… Several of her sons are documented gang members.” Goes on to describe an arrest in 2002, caught red-handed selling drugs with assault weapons in the house, along with six children under 10 including a 3-month old. This time she plead guilty to child endangerment and possession of an assault weapon (but apparently, not to selling drugs, for which one of her sons was sentenced to 4 years in prison), “given credit for 259 days served and turned over to federal authorities in May 2003. She was deemed a ‘deportable alien’ but it’s unclear if she was deported…One of her sons, Francisco Real, was convincted in 2002 of immigrant smuggling.”

    Was NOT jailing and deporting this woman much earlier really a social benefit in any way? Can we really say that she got a harsher sentence than if she were middle class and white?

    Celeste asks, “Has this crazy incarceration binge reduced the number of drug users, gangs, and gang members? You do the math.” Here’s one glaring case where failing to incarcerate sure has exponentially increased all of the above.

  9. Celeste Fremon Says:

    As Bill Bratton has said multiple times, the point is not to police harder, but smarter. The same should be true for our incarceration policy, which is huge, lumbering, costly and destructive—-not smart.

  10. Woody Says:

    Proof? Well, several trillion dollars in social spending over the last four decades shows only worse results–or, Celeste is lying about these street problems.

  11. Woody Says:

    Celeste, maybe you can share how Bill Clinton and Democratic governors over the years played a “smart” game with prisons. Maybe this is as smart as it gets.

  12. Randy Paul Says:

    Well, several trillion dollars in social spending over the last four decades shows only worse results–or, Celeste is lying about these street problems.

    In other words, you’ve gotten but more flatulent bloviating.

  13. Randy Paul Says:

    That should say you’ve got nothing, but more flatulent bloviating.

  14. Woody Says:

    A trillion here and a trillion there and soon I’ll have something.

  15. WBC Says:

    Celeste, exactly what would “smarter” policing mean in a case like this, of Maria Leon, her kids and neighbors? Other than giving them much stiffer sentences in the first place and seeing that she’d gotten deported in the first place?

    Our cost of incarcerating illegals in Calif., per one of the TV News channels — 7 or 9 — last week, was over $850 million, maybe more because there may be others not counted, while we got back just $100 million from the feds, by the way. That’s not counting the myriad other social and financial costs this one street alone has cost us.

    As for throwing more money at the problem, the article adds:

    “In 2002, the city built Juntos Park on the street; the park, which cost $6 million, has since become another spot for drug dealing, authorities say.

    “Last year, the city installed surveillance cameras without bulletproof glass. Gang members shot them out the first night.

    “Now we have to put in cameras to monitor the installation of cameras,” (Councilman) Garcetti says.

    Just HOW MUCH MONEY, parks and equipment do you think will “solve” this problem? What SHOULD the city realistically do to be “smarter?”

  16. Celeste Fremon Says:

    I think what Bratton means is to target the people who are causing most of the problems. And that’s what the LAPD attempts to do. At least that’s what command staff wants.

    In the Cyprus area that clearly means Maria Leon and her up-to-no-good sons. But it seems that, although they caught the sons with enough that they could send at least one of them to prison, the same seems not to be true of the mom who apepars to have been picked up primarily on minor charges. Even the gun charge, if the son claimed that the weapons were within his dominion and control, not hers, and that she didn’t know about them, is tough to make stick to her. Even if a DA suspected otherwise, it would have been tough to prove in front of a jury, don’t you think?—esp. in that she had no priors that related to gun or violent crimes. So they made a deal.

    Admittedly, I’m guessing here, as I know no more about this family than what I’ve read about in the Times and the Weekly. Sam Quinones is a good reporter so I take him at his word.

    So what should have been done? Well, she’s the precisely the kind of person who ought to have been deported after she’d taken that deal for time served. She came here illegally as an adult and she had a pattern of low-level criminal behavior (in terms of her convictions). Whether she was or not, seems unclear. Listen, DHS manages to deport upright folks who came here as young children, have lived mostly productive lives, then run afoul of the law in some minor way. All those folks are deported by the thousands.

    Oh, yeah, and DHS keeps trying to mistakenly deport prison inmates who are citizens. (I get calls about this sort of thing. Just ran across another case this month.)

  17. pOPloCk Says:

    Poplution Increase = More Crime = More Prison = Less Crime

  18. pOPloCk Says:

    Poplution Increase = More Crime = More Prisons = Less Crime

  19. richard locicero Says:

    Not that this will matter since certain people here are allergic to anything that smacks of facts but let’s go anyway.

    Most of those “trillions” that woody mentions have gone to so-called “Entitlement” programs like Social Security and Medicare/medicaid. The Result? From being the poorest off, as a group in our society, the elderly – sorry “Senior Citizens” – are now among the best off, again as a group. That is a result of Govt policy.

    In 1960, the year “The Other America” was published one person in five in this countryn was under the poverty line. After the “war on Poverty” and “Great Society” programs this dropped to about one in ten. What a sad failure!

    Under Reagon the rate went up to 16%. Under Clinton it dropped back to 11.5%. It is back up again under Bush.

    See a pattern. Also nearly one person in ten is getting food stamps today – highest ever for the program. And food costs are eating up a larger part of the family budget. We’ve also been cutting farm programs. Coincidenc?

    (Note: all this from the Census bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics)

  20. richard locicero Says:

    And those “illegals” crowding our jails? Maybe but they’re also pumping up Social Securities coffers which are now, according to the commission that annually audits it, solvent thru 2041. Reason? Contributions for the “undocumented” that will never go to the payers but represent pure gains to the trust funds. That amounts to several billion so, just on that measure we come out ahead if your figures are right.

    Just don’t tell Lou Dobbs as I said below.

  21. pOPloCk Says:

    “a couple of facts and figures: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics drug offenders account for about 25 percent of local jail inmates, 21 percent of state prisoners, and 55 percent of federal prisoners. Since 1980 the number of drug offenders in state prisons has increased by 1,200 percent, more than four times the increase in violent offenders.”

    Ms Fremon,
    Now on the above so called facts – are these statistics breaking down the numbers on “users” and “sellers.” The key term “drug offenders” covers a whole lot of criminals……non users and high volume drug dealers included.
    - 55% in Federal custody makes common sense if your not making a distinction between those incarcerated for addiction and those for drug transport. The feds currently have more inmates locked up for RICO cases than ever before.

    When have you heard the FBI going after a street level crack head?
    -Now, to answer the jump in drug users in the state of 1,200%% – can you say Methamphetamine and Property Crimes.

  22. pOPloCk Says:

    I know your into the idea of “jobs not jails.” But honestly Ms. Fremon, those addicted to chronic meth usage can almost never be salvaged.
    The rate of rehabilitation is currently around 7% to 6% that will stay clean beyond two years.
    This percentage is getting smaller and smaller each year with no decline in the near future.
    We need jails badly – whether they focus on rehab or not. I’m tried of getting my GPS or Catalystic Converter stolen.

  23. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Poplock, I could reel off an endless supply of tales of low level dealers (or their girlfriends who are mostly guilty of bad taste in boyfriends), getting Federal time. Dunno how that happens. Just happen to know that it’s true.

    Also, about the meth rehab rate: It’s a worse drug than heroin, no argument from me on that one. Crystal meth steals one’s soul. But many, many people do come back from it if they get adequate help. I’ve had a family member involved so I’ve done more intensive study of this issue than you want to know.

  24. Woody Says:

    rlc: Most of those “trillions” that woody mentions have gone to so-called “Entitlement” programs like Social Security and Medicare/medicaid. The Result? From being the poorest off, as a group in our society, the elderly – sorry “Senior Citizens” – are now among the best off, again as a group. That is a result of Govt policy.

    This is so stupid on so many levels that it would be difficult to know where to begin or end.

  25. Randy Paul Says:

    In other words, you’ve got nothing but invective.

  26. Woody Says:

    Yeah, Randy. It takes a giant brain to figure out that government doesn’t produce anything but takes from those who do and then gives it back after a big service charge.

    Yesterday, a very liberal professor emailed me about the tax increases proposed by the Democrats.


    I am really starting to think like a Republican. I agree with this and the Democrats scare me.

    “Proposed changes in taxes after 2008 General election:” (Then, a lot of sources regarding Democratic tax increases with emphasis on investments.)

    I responded:

    People tend to forget that a lot of retired people depend upon investments to make it through their last years. So, the tax-and-spend folks jack up the taxes on retirees, reducing their ability to take care of themselves. Then, these taxing maniacs take that same tax money for the government and say that they will use it to take care of retirees instead–less a bureaucratic service charge. What was wrong with the original way?

    Plus, there’s a lot more….

  27. richard locicero Says:

    Wonder how he likes the return on his Money market funds?

    Course he could give up his Medicare and Social Security. I’m sure that’s fair isn’t it?

  28. Randy Paul Says:

    Sorry: invective and an unsupported anecdote.

  29. pOPloCk Says:

    One family member! That’s it? WOW!

  30. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Okay, point taken, Poplock. I’m sad for all of us.

  31. Mavis Beacon Says:

    “Listen, DHS manages to deport upright folks who came here as young children, have lived mostly productive lives, then run afoul of the law in some minor way. All those folks are deported by the thousands.”

    I’ve got a friend who’s in the process of falling into this category right now. Know anywhere he can go for help?

  32. Celeste Fremon Says:

    There are good immigration attorneys around, but they’re expensive.

    The only people I know who have gotten around this have found a way to get their sentence vacated. This is a lousy law that even ultra-conservative-on-immigration Congressman Darryl Issa has told me he knows needs revision. But it’s such a political hot potato, few except Barney Frank want to touch it, although many will privately confide that they know it sucks. A bill called the Family Reunification Act has been floating around Congress in various incarnations since 1996 and seemed on the verge of passage until there was a little incident we call 9/11. Now it’s a non-starter. (For some reason nobody seems willing to go to bat for non-citizen…uh…felons.)

    I wrote at length about the issue a couple of years ago, at which time I talked to Issa and a lot of others, who were quite eloquent on the hypocrisy of the law. But, right now I don’t know what’s to be done about it.

    In the course of my research, I ran across dozens of awful stories. I talked to a young Korean father, a legal resident pursuing citizenship, who was driving with a friend, when they got stopped. It turned out the “friend” had some drugs in the car. Both guys were charged, and the Korean guy took a time-served, community service deal at the advice of his public defender. What the PD failed to tell him was that he would be summarily deported to Korea where he’d never been since the age of two. He also didn’t speak the language and, shortly after his arrival, he was drafted into the South Korean army. As far as I know, he’s never been back to the US since. Last I heard he was trying to immigrate to Canada, I think it was. And his kid is growing up without a father.

    And that was just one of many, many stories. Mind you, most of the people we’re talking about are legal residents. It’s just that they aren’t citizens.

    BTW, if I wanted an immigration attorney I’d call Carl Shusterman.

  33. pOPloCk Says:

    Ms. Fremon,
    Did you ever read the story about that kid that lived in the City of Burbank all his life (I think it was since age 2), didn’t speak a drop of Spanish, and got detained/deported with his father back to Mejico?
    The kid was an outstanding student at Burbank and loved by everyone. Great kid! The sister were born in the US, so ICE allowed the mother to stay pending a future deportation order.
    To get around the law, a white neighbor family and friend was willing to adopt the kid before he turned 18. The father was too proud, too traditional, and not understanding that it was being recommended for the kid’s own good and future, father said NO!!! Sad, he had an acceptance letter to college.
    The Catholic Church stepped in and tried to help by blasting the story all over Channel 34 and 52. It was an honest intent to mobilize political reaction.
    The Catholic father just pissed off the INS and the kid got deported in a time breaking two days.
    I blame Woody and his homie,DOBBS, for the above.

  34. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Poplock, I somehow missed that one. A total heartbreaker. There are just so, so many. Every quarter at UCI one or more of my students wants to make their main project an immigration story simply because so many of them have good friends, smart terrific kids, whom they see suffering.

    One of the most horrifying stories I ran across when I was researching the whole thing was about a white family that adopted a kid out of Brazilian orphanage when he was a child of 8. They never made him a citizen because the parents thought their adoptive son ought to be able to chose what citizenship he wanted when he reached adulthood.

    Big mistake. The kid got caught on some minor marijuana charge just after he graduated high school, but it was enough to get the 1996 law to kick in and he was deported, despite the parents moving heaven and earth to try to stop it—lawyers, the whole nine yards. They stopped the deportation for two years and even got the Ohio parole board to recommend clemency. Republican governor Bob Taft denied the request.

    The kid was deported and got a job teaching English in the slums north of Sao Paulo—-where he was murdered.

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