- The Challenge of Crime: Rethinking our Response
The Challenge of Crime has an ambitious agenda: a survey of research and policy, done with an eye on new criminal justice policy. This is all put forth an historical overview, covering in particular the last thirty years. In large part the authors succeed in their goals, and the critical observations I have are more about irritations than about the overall thrust(s) of the book.
Some sections of the book are simply outstanding, presenting a summary of very complex and ideologically fraught topics: in particular, the authors’ summary of gun research and juvenile justice should be singled out. Everyone is an expert on these topics, yet Henry Ruth and Kevin Reitz clear through thickets of data and ideas to provide what I think must be the best and most useful overview yet.
This is a good book, and my criticisms come from its quality, as these are not fatal flaws. My frustration comes from the author’s vague policy recommendations, not so much in the substance of these recommendations as in the unspecified subjects who are supposed to act. The text is peppered with “musts” and “shoulds” directed at broad entities—“as a society...” “America must” and “society should” (210, 247, 280). This reminds me of sixties and seventies pieties. I believe these fuzzy phrases comes from a somewhat deeper and surprising problem: a blurring of where, precisely, various crime control responsibilities lie. The Federal system and Constitution have mandated a very peculiar “crime response” (the authors’ preferred terms) apparatus in the United States, with a huge and diverse set of agencies at the local and county levels, and with no federal agency in charge. I suspect that the authors are experts in this area as one is a law professor and the other an experienced federal lawyer.
While the authors note the growth of federal crimes, primarily drug crimes, they do not emphasize that the “boots on the ground” come from literally thousands of independent agencies. How many of the over 13,000 police chiefs, or 3,000 county chief prosecutors will read this book? Just the police agencies alone have a cumulative budget of $37 billion in 2000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.1 If every police chief, senior command officer and district attorney read this book, how would they pick through the recommendations to make policy changes, given their different mandates and lack of formal coordination? Might each agency go a different direction? Much is up to their discretion: for example, every chief prosecutor sets priorities of crimes to go after—only a few emphasize gun law enforcement, choosing instead equally pressing offences, such as child abuse or gang activity. And, the police in their county may well set other priorities, homicide investigation, say. Almost no agency has prevention in its mandate; for that we turn to schools and public health departments—some [End Page 1085] municipal, some county. Occasionally these agencies cooperate, but the political structure of the country makes this purely voluntary.
The authors have few biases—J. Q .Wilson gets a strange amount of criticism—but one historical aspect of their work ignores an important moment in criminology and policy, one which helps illuminate the ideological tangles at which the authors often hint. This is the radical criminology movement of the sixties and seventies. Many were attracted (I confess, including me) to this movement, for the work was very exciting (at the time) and its proponents often highly dynamic. It is still alive (see http://www.critcrim.org/) if getting on towards retirement. Radical criminology was a part of an enlargement of ideology—better call it theory—over research, which caused many scholars to turn away from policy. This contributed to the weakness of policy coming from universities since the early seventies, and not just from the radical (or, critical) criminologists. J. Q. Wilson helped clear the air of many ideological diversions, something the authors may have forgotten.
Rather than end on a sour note, let...