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When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses …. and we’ll lock em up. With an exploding incarceration rate, punitive detention in the United States has become not just a growth industry, but a way of life. As of June 30, 2008, the DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics reported:

  • 2,310,984 prisoners were held in federal or state prisons or in local jails
  • an increase of 0.8% from yearend 2007, less than the average annual growth of 2.4% from 2000-2007. – 1,540,805 sentenced prisoners were under state or federal jurisdiction.
  • there were an estimated 509 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents
  • up from 506 at yearend 2007.
  • the number of women under the jurisdiction of state or federal prison authorities increased 1.2% from yearend 2007, reaching 115,779, and the number of men rose 0.7%, totaling 1,494,805
  • At midyear 2008, there were 4,777 black male inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents being held in state or federal prison and local jails, compared to 1,760 Hispanic male inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents and 727 white male inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents.

Now stop, look and consider those statistics again; they are truly staggering. To lend a startling analogy for further perspective, the African-American incarceration rate today is higher than the entire incarceration rate in the Soviet Union the day Stalin died. An intellectually enlightened society would question the effectiveness of such a heavy crime and punishment ethos when it constantly increases demand for more instead of reducing it which, were it effective would be the anticipated result. Sadly, too few such questions are raised, especially by the legislators and policy makers driving our society.

One who does ask is Professor Mark A.R. Kleiman of the UCLA School of Public Affairs. In his new book “When Brute Force Fails – How To Have Less Crime And Less Punishment“, Professor Kleiman asks why, even after a decade of falling crime rates, crime remains such a huge problem, and major barrier to improving conditions in both poor neighborhoods and, really, society as a whole. But asking the question is only the first step, Professor Kleiman has gone the further, and more difficult step to give answers and propose creative and intelligent solutions.

Could the United States have half as much crime and half as many prisoners a decade from now? Yes. But not the way either liberals or conservatives normally think about the problem: not by building more prisons or “fixing root causes,” not through “zero tolerance” or “restorative justice,” not by “winning the drug war” or “ending prohibition,” not with “more guns, less crime” or national gun registration. The current system of randomized severity gets us the worst of all possible worlds: high crime rates and mass incarceration. The alternative approach that could cut both crime and incarceration rates depends on a few principles, simple in concept but requiring effective management:

● Punishment is a cost, not a benefit.

● Swiftness and certainty are more effective than severity.

● A truly convincing threat doesn’t have to be carried out very often.

● A small proportion of the offenders account for most of the crime.

● Offenders need to be warned — personally and specifically — what it is that they’re not supposed to do and what will happen if they keep doing it.

● Concentrating enforcement attention works better than dispersing it.

● Now that it is possible to monitor the location and drug use of probationers and parolees with portable GPS systems, many — perhaps most — of today’s prisoners could be safely managed in the community instead. But that depends on the willingness and capacity to use short jail stays, delivered quickly and reliably, to sanction probation and parole violations.

● The primary goal of drug law enforcement should be to minimize crime and disorder around the drug markets, not to reduce the flow of drugs.

● Not every social program helps control crime. But some demonstrably do: nurse home visits, improved classroom discipline, shifting the school day later so that adolescents aren’t on the streets when there are lots of empty homes, reducing exposure to lead, substitution therapy (methadone and buprenorphine) for opiate addicts.

● Social-services agencies need to be managed with crime control in mind, just as criminal-justice agencies need to be managed to help control disease and serve other non-crime-control purposes.

As Professor Kleiman points out, the cause does not necessarily need more money, it needs better brains and more focused, smarter goals. Having spent a good deal of the last two plus decades practicing criminal defense and civil rights law in the trenches of the American justice system, I bear witness to the desperate need for a better plan. Likewise, I can personally attest to Professor Kleiman’s relation of the issue to minorities, poverty and educational failings. Spend any time whatsoever in and around criminal trial courts, of any level, and the singular predominance of the less fortunate in the system is appallingly obvious. It is, as Professor Kleiman points out, a self perpetuating sinkhole.

Unfortunately, I also bear witness to the inertia of thought and creativity in the system perpetuated by by money and profit interests of the pertinent players and knee jerk vote pandering by politicians. Professor Kleiman has proffered some outstanding ideas, and supplied a fantastic basis for discussing the subject. His, however, are by no means the only ideas; it is up to us, both here at Firedoglake and in the greater society, to build from there.

Mark Kleiman is Professor of Public Policy in the UCLA School of Public Affairs. He teaches courses on methods of policy analysis and on drug abuse and crime control policy. His current focus is on the design of deterrent regimes to take advantage of positive-feedback effects, and the substitution of swiftness and predictability for severity in the criminal justice system generally and in community-corrections institutions specifically.

He is the author of Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control and Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results, and is now at work on When Brute Force Fails: Strategy for Crime Control. He edits the Drug Policy Analysis Bulletin. He blogs at The Reality-Based Community. His academic interests include political philosophy and the study of imperfectly rational decision-making and how to make policy to accommodate it.

In addition to his academic work, Mr. Kleiman provides advice to local, state, and national governments on crime control and drug policy.

Before coming to UCLA in 1995, Mr. Kleiman taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and at the University of Rochester. Outside of academia, he has worked for the U.S. Department of Justice (as Director of Policy and Management Analysis for the Criminal Division), for the City of Boston (as Deputy Director for Management of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget), for Polaroid Corporation (as Special Assistant to the CEO, Edwin Land), and on Capitol Hill (as a legislative assistant to Congressman Les Aspin).

He graduated from Haverford College (majoring in political science, philosophy, and economics) and did his graduate work (M.P.P. and Ph.D.) at the Kennedy School.

Many of you may know Mark from his excellent blog, The Reality-Based Community, as well as articles at Huffington Post and any number of other web and print forums. “When Brute Force Fails” has received wonderful reviews and has just been named as one of the Books Of The Year by The Economist. Professor Kleiman is a remarkable fellow, passionate about his work and committed to engendering discussion of it.

Please welcome Professor Mark Kleiman to Firedoglake and join in a fascinating discussion of his new book “When Brute Force Fails – How To Have Less Crime And Less Punishment.”