“Take a group of four year olds; put ’em at a table. Put a marshmallow in front of each and say ‘I’m going to leave the room for 10 minutes. When I come back, everybody who still has his marshmallow in front of him gets a second marshmallow, and you can eat both. But if you eat the marshmallow while I’m gone, that’s all you get.’”

“And the four year olds understand they’d rather wait for ten minutes and have two marshmallows. And some can, and some can’t. It turns out that eating your marshmallow is the strongest predictor we know of going to prison.”

The above vignette, which UCLA Professor Mark Kleiman calls his favorite social science experiment, was just one of the antidotes and homilies related at a recent Zócalo/UCLA sponsored discussion on at the Rand Corp. Public policy analyst Kleinman along with fellow academics Angela Hawken of Pepperdine, Mark Petersen of UCLA, and LAPD chief Charlie Beck gathered to confer before an engaged audience about the legacy of political scientist James Q. Wilson, who passed away in March.

Wilson’s impact on bureaucracy and government cannot be overstated, as evidenced by Kleiman’s observation that “he was certainly as responsible as anybody in the academic world for taking us from half a million people behind bars, to 2.4 million people behind bars.”

Wilson is best known for the “broken windows” theory of criminology he developed with George L. Kelling. It proposes that maintaining the physical appearance of a neighborhood by preventing vandalism and misdemeanor behaviors can prevent the escalation of serious crimes. Since its presentation in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article, the concept has attracted a vast array of supporters and has been used as the basis for law enforcement reform in the past three decades.

Perhaps it’s best known advocate, William Bratton, used this methodology during his tenure at the head of the Boston, New York, and Los Angeles police departments, and most recently as an advisor to United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron in the wake of that country’s 2011 riots.

As they discussed the pros and cons of Wilson’s ideas, the panel noted the impracticality of one, infallible “magic bullet” of crime prevention. Chief Beck stated that aside from reforms in law enforcement’s approach, three other factors were instrumental in the overall nationwide drop in crime in recent years. They include:
1) An increase in community and data-driven policing.
2) The tapering off of the crack cocaine epidemic.
3) The reduction of gang-related violence.

Some of the points made by the panel flew in the face of the popular conviction that draconian narcotics sentencing has swelled incarceration rates, since as Kleiman stated, only 20 percent of the prison population is comprised of drug offenders.

Despite its wide spread embrace, “broken windows” has its fair share of detractors, who claim that when improperly executed it can be used as a cover for prejudicial behavior in the form of racial profiling. Consequently Wilson’s approach may be considered both a solution and an aggravation to the problems it seeks to address.