James Wilson, professor of public policy at UCLA, speaks with Bill Moyers about early intervention and incarceration as solutions to crime and violence. Personal accountability should be the aim of education and rehabilitation, Wilson maintains, and it is critical to link penalties with small offenses committed early so that children learn to connect their conduct to its consequences.
MALE VOICE: I know we gotta die one time, but I hope to die peacefully.
MALE VOICE #2: All I say around me was poverty.
MALE VOICE #3: By 14, I was deep into the gang.
FEMALE VOICE: We'd get in fights and shoot people and stab people.
MALE VOICE #4: No one cared, years of violence, years of being violent.
MALE VOICE #5: People don't think sometime, they just react.
FEMALE VOICE #2: I'm scared, I'm not gonna lie.
MALE VOICE #6: I don't want to be another statistic.
MALE VOICE #7: I would like to be part of the solution.
FEMALE VOICE #3: I wanna be somebody.
MALE VOICE #8: I don't wanna die, I wanna live. (NOISE)
BILL MOYERS: I'm Bill Moyers, before setting out to produce our PBS Series on Youth Violence, we consulted several road maps by seasoned travelers who've explored the tangled realms of criminal behavior. Among the most valuable were two books, Thinking About Crime and The Moral Sense, written by the same author.
James Q. Wilson is one of America's foremost authorities on crime. Years of research and scholarship have led him to conclude that personal accountability should be the aim of education and of criminal rehabilitation. Children, he says, must learn early on how to tell right from wrong, and then to appreciate the importance of then doing the right thing. When they commit their first small offenses, he says, they should receive prompt, certain but modest penalties that show their conduct has consequences. James Q. Wilson teaches in the Department of Public Policy at the University of California in Los Angeles. (MUSIC) What is the most helpful and realistic way to — to think about violence?
JAMES Q. WILSON: I think the most helpful and realistic way is to imagine all of us have, within this, ourselves, the capacity for violence, and we are restrained, to some degree, by our own constitution; we are restrained, to some degree, by family circumstances, we are restrained, to some degree, by the fear of punishment.
And I think what troubles people now is that they believe that we are left only with our internal restraints, that familial restraints, that the restraints of the criminal justice system have weakened, and they're not even sure that the individual restraint exists so anymore; they see young killers on the street who seem to be both feral and serial.
They kill apparently without motive, apparently without remorse, and they do it repeatedly. And however few in number they are, and I believe they are relatively few in number, that is a deeply troubling problem for America, because it is suggested not simply that the criminal justice system is inefficient or family practices might be deficient, it suggests that, perhaps, the country has entered on the track, that we've entered into an era in which we can no longer give an adequate account of who we are.
BILL MOYERS: Are you pessimistic that we can do anything about violence?
JAMES Q. WILSON: I think we can do something about violence, but it's going to be far more difficult than anything we've undertaken in the past. We did a great deal about property crime, and we don't give ourselves sufficient credit for it. The property crime rate, variously measured, has been declining more or less steadily since 1980, as compared to other countries in Europe, for example, where it has been rising, more or less steadily, since 1980.
And we did it by a variety of means, not the least of which is building many prisons and filling them with prisoners and hiring more security guards and becoming more alert, so that we've made progress. But now, we confront this phenomena of juvenile violence, which has taken on a wholly new character, because young people have benefited from the American Dream.
Young gang members that used to be on foot, armed with clubs are now in cars, armed with semi automatic weapons, and they have these things because we have the freedom and prosperity that equips people with these things. And though they don't kill many, they're like a lightning storm on a golf course.
You know your chances of being struck by lightning are very small, but you take cover. And Americans want desperately to take cover. And the question there is, "Can we reduce this increase in juvenile crime?" And I don't think we know the answer, but I think we ought to talk about it. The numbers are not vast, the problem is, in principal, manageable, but it requires approaches that I don't think we've explored before.
BILL MOYERS: What is your own understanding of why it is we lead the industrial world in murder?
JAMES Q. WILSON: We have led the industrial world in murder since records began to be kept. For 150 years, we've been in the lead. When Andrew Jackson was President in the United States, there were probably more homicides in Philadelphia than there was in London, though London was a much bigger city.
Matters — have continued that way. The explanations are legion, we are a frontier society, people settle towns before government control towns, we've always believed in limited government. We've gained enormously from that belief, but we've paid a price.
It means that we move — did move across this nation, pushing back the frontier, well in advance of government, and when we fought, as citizen soldiers, as members of the militia, we brought our own weapons home. And as we've become a nation of many cultures, whose jagged edges are rubbed off as we bump against each other, we are a culture where those frictions are more intense. And if we have the guns and if we have the tradition of individual self-respect and don't put your face in my face, we will sometimes reach for those guns to establish respect. That's been going on for a long time. It has become far worse, of late, because these resources are now available to people who didn't once have them.
Which is to say, poor young people who once fought on the football field or in the riot after the football game, but did not have the armaments to carry the fight very much further. Now they do.
BILL MOYERS: What is it about their world view that leads to that inability to (UNINTEL) cause and effect?
JAMES Q. WILSON: If you look at young people who have all of these risk factors, the common subjective expression of all these factors is the belief that what happens to you is not determined by you, it is determined by forces outside of you. You become fatalistic. What will happen, will happen; when your time comes, your time comes. People who have the opposite of those factors, who are bright, who are energetic, who are committed, who are not impulsive, who have a longtime horizon, believe that what they do controls their fate.
And so, that when you want to get a shorthand measure for children who are at risk, ask them the question, "Do you think that what happens to you is something you control or do you think that it's the result of forces over which you have no control?"
BILL MOYERS: And if they said it's forces of which I have no control, wouldn't they be right to a large degree?
JAMES Q. WILSON: Some of them are indeed right; after all, they have been born in many cases under the most difficult circumstances. They have a teenage unmarried mom, they have no father, their neighborhood is ravaged by crime and drugs, they have difficulty in school, sometimes from their fault, sometimes because the school rejects 'em, they have difficulty forming friends. They live in neighborhoods where they're so frightened that if they don't join a gang, the gang will kill them.
And therefore, they join a gang for purposes of mutual self-protection and an urban arms war develops. If you live in that environment, you are, indeed, correct in thinking that what happens to you is not something you can control. The difficulty is that the — in a free society, the only techniques we really have for intervening are based on the assumption that people can and will take responsibility for their own actions.
That's what punishment, retribution, deterrence is all about. We don't have really the techniques that — are designed to help people who think that "the fates govern them." Other countries have these techniques, brainwashing — or re-education, programs designed to make you a "changed person." But a free society has denied itself, properly, in my view, access to most of these techniques.
BILL MOYERS: You mean, we have to accept a high rate of — of — of crime and violence, relatively, but —
JAMES Q. WILSON: I don't think we have to accept (PH) the high rate of crime and violence, we have to deny to people the opportunity that their impulsiveness will lead them to. So much crime is opportunistic. "I was on the street corner, the purse was there."
"I got mad and I had a gun in my pocket. I saw those Reeboks, I want them now. This fellow dissed me." This concern for pride, for respect, for immediate gain is all converted into criminality by opportunities; our problem is, how do we reduce those opportunities? How do we get guns off of the street? How do we place such people under great surveillance? How do we intervene early in their family lives so that when they grow up, they grow up feeling that they have a greater share of control over their destiny than they now do?
The average young child is so robust, so healthy, so strong, from virtually birth on, that with any kind of nurturance at all, with half — a fair chance, they grow up to be morally competent individuals, because the child has been designed by nature — literally, by evolution, to be pro-social, to want human contact, to want to elicit good reactions from others, and to, in time, deserve those good reactions from others.
But even the healthiest plant can be crushed by a total lack of nurturance or by excessive brutality or by utter neglect, so that left to their own devices, the vast majority of children will grow up to be morally healthy. The question then is, is there a lesson in that process that can be applied to those that don't? Well, there are some lessons, of course. We want intact families; we want loving families; we want families that practice consistent discipline.
These things do make a difference, but they are desperately hard to produce by anything we know that deserves the name of a "government program," governments don't raise children, people raise children. The problem we have to face is whether we can find for the most at-risk children alternate families that would permit those who are predisposed to a life of moral decency, to develop fully those same moral faculties.
BILL MOYERS: Alternate families?
JAMES Q. WILSON: Alternate families.
BILL MOYERS: You mean, taking the child out of that dysfunctional home or out of that single-parent home?
JAMES Q. WILSON: Not taking the child out, but providing the opportunity for the parent to get assistance. At the turn of this century, we had about 120,000 urban children living in boarding schools for the poor, they're sometimes called "orphanages," but they weren't orphanages.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
JAMES Q. WILSON: Because the child had at least one and usually, two parents, but they were poor or they were troubled or they were disadvantaged or they were neglectful. These were boarding schools were children lived under adult supervision, saw their parents as often as they want, the parents could remove 'em anytime they wanted.
Paid for by religious charity, sometimes sub — subvented by the public, and since I wrote a brief article describing these, I have been inundated by letters from children who grew up in these environments, and uniformally, the experience was positive. Now we have cut back on this and we've cut back on this because of two reasons: First, we all remember Charles Dickens portrayal of an orphanage.
"Please, sir, may I have some more gruel?" Well, technically, it wasn't an orphanage, it was a work house, but the image is vivid, nonetheless. And the other reason we've given up on it is something called "the family preservation movement," that the child must remain with its natural parents, though the Heavens may fall.
Now it seems to me that we have to widen the range of alternatives. One of the things we could do would be to pool various forms of public assistance, welfare checks, other forms of public aid payment, to help fund these group homes or these shelters, in which either the children would live alone and be raised in a boarding school environment, or would live with their mother and be — raised in a kind of common shelter, in which they would be protected from the mean streets.
They would be given a sense of how to control their own lives and they would be rewarded with the kind of affection, nurturance and stability that is so often lacking in their natural lives. We don't take children away from parents, except in the most extreme cases of cruelty. But we can widen the alternatives.
BILL MOYERS: Does this fly in the face of the current public mood, though, which has very little faith in intervention or — and — and prevention and a great deal of hope for punishment and punitive prison, lock 'em up, throw away the key ideas?
JAMES Q. WILSON: I think the public — has both the view that punishment should be swifter and more certain and more severe for the offender, and also, the view that family values should be restored. And I think the operative word in that last is "values." That is to say, they think there are too many dysfunctional families; they believe rightly that these families are creating a large share of our crime problem and they would like those families changed.
And in many cases, they aren't real families, they are teenage girls living alone. I think the public would support both things. I think without any question, if you said to them, "Do you want persons who have broken the law sent to prison?" they would say yes.
And they would say, "Do you want young children who haven't had a chance in life to grow up in some kind of group shelter or boarding school where they might avoid becoming — a criminal?" they would — also say, unhesitatingly, "Yes, we want that, too."
BILL MOYERS: And then, we're back at the beginning of this discussion, how do we intervene in those impoverished, broken situations where neighborhoods have deteriorated and chaos is prevalent and male role models are absent — white and black — whatever the race — you're talking about a culture there — which makes it — very difficult that the moral sense, as you call it, will be developed or that kids will have a sense of the future or that they feel they will have a stake in — in — in what's happening. And that breeds this kind of indifferent nihilism, doesn't it?
JAMES Q. WILSON: Yes, the moral sense is a product of two features; one is habit, ordinary, small habits of friendliness, punctuality, responsibility, doing your duty, and the other is a sense of the future. The sense that how I behave today will affect what happens to be tomorrow, because other people, by judging my acts today, will affect my prospects for tomorrow. So the moral sense flourishes the best when there is this combination of learned habits and a sense of the future. And at-risk children often back both.
BILL MOYERS: You — you go so far as to say that if intervention's gonna work at all, it has to occur very, very early.
JAMES Q. WILSON: If you want to intervene in children who are really at risk, you have to start probably no later than ages three or four, possibly earlier than this. There may be medical problems they have that appear at an even earlier age, if their mother used drugs or alcohol while pregnant.
But let's assume we begin intervening at age the three, such evidence as we have, and it is still fragmentary, suggests that large scale interventions at a very early age that last a few years, at a minimum, perhaps, five years, that involve not only helping the child with nutrition, with early preschool education, with learning to play with other children in a constructive way, but also, help the parents — or usually, just "the parent," the mother, know how to raise the child, how to cope with its temper tantrums, how to manage its diet.
That this joint process of intervening with the child and the mother can, over a period of many years, lead to a substantial reduction in the kind of aggressive, violent acting out behavior that troubles us. There have been several projects like this around the country, and the best ones seem to produce real gains.
But the intervention has to be early and it has to be massive and that raises a problem for society. Unless we know exactly who to target these programs on, they are extremely expensive, because we will have to reach tens of thousands of people.
BILL MOYERS: And there are so many places where this intervention takes place that one gets pessimistic thinking about the efficacy of what you describe.
JAMES Q. WILSON: You get pessimistic, but I think the way to deal with pessimism is to begin to take small, first steps to see how far you can get. Suppose, for example, we said to every teenage girl who was pregnant and unmarried, that you cannot have a welfare check unless you're willing to live in a child in a group home, truly supervised by adults.
Now those adults might be your own mother or grandmother, if she is an adequate parent, or it might be a group home run by a church or a secular organization that is designed to provide a structured, nurturant, resilient, but challenging environment for both mother and child. And these will be financed by pooling all of the welfare checks of the recipients, and we would see whether, with just that population, we can change the life trajectory of those children. And if we can, then perhaps, we can expand it, but we might fail there. We won't know till we try, but I'm in favor of trying.
BILL MOYERS: It's that kind of specific suggesting that I think the country's desperate for. What are some others that you might — you might have us experiment with to see if we can make a dent in this?
JAMES Q. WILSON: We have to increase the level of public safety in all neighborhoods; we have to make it clear to young boys growing up in any neighborhood that the police and the public control the streets, the gangs don't control the streets, so that they will not have an incentive born of fear and a desire for self-preservation, to arm themselves or join a gang, simply in order to survive to the next day. This cannot be done by aggregate national programs or state-wide programs or possibly, even city-wide programs. We have to take some target neighborhoods and say that in these neighborhoods, we will declare that the gangs will no longer run the streets, and we will use all the techniques at our disposal to place people under a kind of non-intrusive surveillance to make sure that no one can carry a gun in a public street.
The concrete ways by which you could do that might include the following: Get a judge to issue a restraining order, an injunction, that forbids on penalty of Contempt of Court, people from wearing gang insignia, spraying graffiti, using drugs, carrying alcohol, having guns, gathering for illegal purposes on street corners.
Have that gang be told, that in effect, "You are now illegal." Secondly, equip the police with the technology that I'm sure could be created that would identify people who are carrying concealed weapons from a distance, sufficiently so that the police would have proper constitutional authority to stop them, question them, pat them down, and if there is a gun there, seize the weapon and arrest the person.
BILL MOYERS: A kind of mobile metal detector.
JAMES Q. WILSON: Mobile metal detectors, using — millimeter — bandwidth radar or some equivalent. We have a lot of unemployed rocket scientists right now, (LAUGH) who used to spend their time figuring out how to blow up the Soviet Union, maybe they can spend their time now — trying to save our cities.
BILL MOYERS: I have actually pinned to my wall the paragraph from your commentary article which says, "Must of our uniquely American crime problem arises not from the failings of individuals, but from the concentration in disorderly neighborhoods, of people at risk of failing." Now — now what does this suggest in the way of a national response?
JAMES Q. WILSON: If I could redesign the world, I would break up all neighborhoods where people are concentrated to their mutual disadvantage, and spread those people far more widely, almost indeed, randomly, around the countryside. I know this is a pipe dream because when I was growing up and when we didn't talk about central city neighborhoods and we didn't talk about the problems associated with them, we all knew that there was in each big city, a Skid Rod, a Bowery, a place where bums hung out — where people who had fallen through the cracks of society.
And you were told to be careful, (NOISE) but it wasn't the sense that these were neighborhoods where children lived. These were children — neighborhoods where unhappy men lived. Now these are neighborhoods where children live, and children grow up in places we used to call Skid Row. (NOISE)
It would be nice to have the children grow up somewhere else, but in a society where we choose our residents freely, as we do in this country, people will move out of decaying neighborhoods as their circumstances permit, and as those who cannot or will not move out remain behind, the problems become concentrated.
But it's not a hopeless problem, because happily, we're also a nation of immigrants and new people come in and they bring new institutions and new cultures and they re-build those neighborhoods. People, for example, think of South Central Los Angeles as a black neighborhood, it's not, it's a Hispanic neighborhood where the blacks are now in the minority.
One of the advantages of immigration to this country, which is vastly underestimated by its critics, is that we are constantly replacing the middle class and the working class with people who have come here at great risk to themselves to try to find opportunity. But the intervening periods, the transition, when the Hispanics move into formerly Black South Central or the Koreans move into — formally Black Vermont (PH), it's tension and group conflict and the formation of gangs.
I don't know how to manage these transitions better, but I would not say taking the long-run, that I am profoundly pessimistic. Seems to me, we have to begin our approach to crime, and particularly, juvenile crime, from the bottom up. We have to identify some neighborhoods and start building safe zones there.
And not worry about the national crime, about which we probably can't do anything at all. Think of some city as Lebanon during the worst of its civil war, it has to be retaken block by block, building by building. I do not believe with the politicians that their quick fix solutions will make a difference. I do not believe that crime should be an issue in President elections. I don't think the federal government can make much of a difference, so I'm more pessimistic than the politicians, but I'm more optimistic than the American people. I do not think this country is on a one-way trip to perdition; I think this country has enormous reserves of decency and self-respect. We renew ourselves every year with immigrants and new generations of children, and I think we will overcome this.
This transcript was entered on April 21, 2015.