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The Rise of Common-Sense ConservatismThe American Right and the Reinvention of the Scottish Enlightenment$
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Antti Lepistö

Print publication date: 2021

Print ISBN-13: 9780226774046

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: January 2022

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226774183.001.0001

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Retributive Sentiments and Criminal Justice: James Q. Wilson on Crime and Punishment

Retributive Sentiments and Criminal Justice: James Q. Wilson on Crime and Punishment

(p.136) 5 Retributive Sentiments and Criminal Justice: James Q. Wilson on Crime and Punishment
The Rise of Common-Sense Conservatism

Antti Lepistö

University of Chicago Press

Chapter 5 explores the criminological thought of James Q. Wilson, the foremost neoconservative authority on crime. It studies Wilson’s response to such events as the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, and the era’s sensationalized court cases such as the O.J. Simpson case and the Menendez brothers case. It suggests that Wilson’s arguments on the proper role of popular retributive moral sentiments within the criminal justice system ought to be seen as an expression of penal populism. Wilson invoked Adam Smith’s vocabulary of “moral sentiments” to illustrate and give credibility to the tough-on-crime views of many late twentieth-century Americans, and to delegitimize and marginalize liberal experts’ seeming tendency to explain rather than to judge criminal behavior. The chapter also shows that although Wilson used Smith’s moral vocabulary in the context of the 1990s crime debates, he distanced himself from Smith’s actual ideas on punishment and an “impartial spectator’s” possible sympathy for the offender. The last part of the chapter argues that the history of neoconservatism lends some support to Michelle Alexander’s much-discussed argument that “colorblindness,” instead of providing the solution, is in fact part of the problem of lingering racial inequality in America.

Keywords:   James Q. Wilson, crime, criminology, criminal justice system, penal populism, moral sentiments, Adam Smith, 1994 crime bill, colorblindness, Michelle Alexander

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