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When Brute Force Fails

Most of you know Mark Kleiman as an excellent blogger. But there's also his exciting and mysterious alter ego: Mark Kleiman; crime expert. And his alter ego has published a new book: "When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment." I just cracked it open over the weekend, so I'm not far enough to have anything interesting to say. But the introduction is really excellent:

Engineers have a sardonic saying, "when brute force fails, you're not using enough." For three decades, in the face of the great crime wave that started in the 1960s, we have been trying to solve our crime problem with brute force: building more and more prisons and jails. Recently, the crime problem has diminished -- though the downtrend stopped around 2004 -- but we still have a huge crime problem, to which we have now added a huge incarceration problem: there are now 2.3 million people behind bars at any one time, and that number continues to grow.

Is there an alternative to brute force? There is reason to think so, and pieces of that alternative approach can be seen working in scattered places through the world of crime control. But the first step in getting away from brute force is to want to get away from brute force: to care more about reducing crime than about punishing criminals, and to be willing to choose safety over vengeance when the two are in tension.

Developing a consequence-focused approach to crime control would require that we blunt the emotional edge that debates about crime often have and ask the simple question: what are the stakes in crime control? If for a moment we thought about "crime" as something bad that happens to people, like auto accidents or air pollution or disease, rather than as something horrible that people do to each other -- if we thought about it, that is, as an ordinary domestic policy problem -- then we could start to ask how to limit the damage crime does at as little cost as possible in money spent and suffering inflicted.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 20, 2009; 10:04 AM ET
Categories:  Books  
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As long as "law and order" is code for putting black men behind bars, this country will fail at any attempt to have an honest conversation about crime prevention and control. We need to stop allowing shadow racists from using code words before we can talk intelligibly about crime, drug, or welfare policy.

Posted by: kkrahel | July 20, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Shouldn't the title be: "When Brute Force Succeeds"? After all, the one thing we know about America's incarceration policy is that it has been successful in reducing crime. There may be other policy reasons for worrying about the incarceration rate, such as what kkrahel points out above, but the decrease in crime didn't drop out of the sky exogenously.

Posted by: tomtildrum | July 20, 2009 5:23 PM | Report abuse

tomtildrum, though I have not yet read WBFF, I am confident that outside of Ezra's excerpt Kleiman does address incarceration's role in reducing crime. In a working paper (available at Kleiman argues,

"In the mid-1970s, U.S. prisons and jails held about 300,000 prisoners. Today, they
house more than two million people at any given moment: a seven-fold increase over thirty years (Hill and Paige 1998, Harrison and Karberg 2003). That brute-force approach has reduced crime partly through deterrence and partly through sheer incapacitation: the more people who would otherwise be criminally active are locked up, the lower the crime rate. However, the magnitude of the decrease in the crime rate hardly seems proportionate to the magnitude of the increase in incarceration."

I find Kleiman's idea that the decease in crime is 'disproportionate' to the increase in people incarcerated persuasive. According to a compliation of URC crime statistics (available at in 1975 there were 5,298.5 crimes per 100,000 people, whereas in 2005 there were 3,900.5 crimes per 100,000 people. Even if incarceration were the only factor that has reduced our crime rate between 1975 and 2005, a seven-fold increase in incarceration would be a large cost to pay for a 26% decrease in crime.

(I took a class with Kleiman and am confident that the policies recommended in his book—such as those demonstrated in the HOPE plan, which reduced positive drug tests among probationers by 91% [see]—have the potential to reduce both crime and punishment in America by huge margins. Having heard Kleiman discuss his ideas and his book, I'm on board with Michael O'Hare when he suggests WBFF "is the order of battle for a historic victory of intelligence over evil.")

Posted by: itseems | July 25, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

For someone hoping for "a historic victory of intelligence over evil," I wasn't thinking very intelligently when I wrote the above post. My sketchy idea that our 700% increase in incarceration might at most account for our 26% decrease in crime between 1975 and 2005 assumes that crime was not increasing for reasons unrelated to incarceration...

Posted by: itseems | July 25, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

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