If I were to make a list of people I’d like to hear saying nice things about my work, Mike O’Hare would be near the top, both because he has good taste and because he doesn’t let friendship get in the way of brutal honesty when it’s called for. So I’m indecently proud of Mike’s review of When Brute Force Fails in the new California Journal of Politics and Policy.
Consider skipping the book and reading the review instead. Here’s the meat:
Kleiman’s key insight about objectives is that crime and punishment are both costly (another idea that looks banal right after you come upon it, but not so obvious to police departments promoting on the basis of arrests, or to politicians running on a lock-‘em-up appeal to voters’ lizard brains). Less of both is even better than less of the first and more of the second.
The key technical insights are three.
The first is the lesson of the weeds: enforcement resources are scarce in practice (and costly even when abundant): starting from a high level of violations, limited policing, prosecuting, convicting, and incarcerating can rarely raise the probability of punishment high enough to make crime not pay in expectation. However, concentrated on a specific list of targets, or a geographic area, they can, and low offense rates in the first target zone free up resources to both maintain the initial zone at a low offense rate and flood the next target area.
The second technical insight is more general: looking out from inside the heads of potential offenders at their environments, Kleiman finds that a lot of behavior by a lot of unconnected agencies affects the decision to offend. My favorite example here is that middle and high schools start too early for the typical teenage circadian clock, so the kids can’t pay attention in class owing to sleep deprivation, drop out, and are dumped on the street three hours before working parents get home.
The third insight is that the psychology of negative reinforcement has shown again and again that certainty and promptness of punishment are worth dozens of severity. We get a psychological kick from adding 10 years to a 10-year minimum sentence for something, and elections, sadly, are too often won by the guy who promises to “throw away the key,” but 10 years in the slam, starting at least a decade from now, imposed with small probability in any case, is probably less discouraging to a youngster with a very high discount rate thinking about a robbery (especially if he’s already been in prison once) than missing next month’s parties, hanging-out, and cruising.