Crime as a campaign issue

Can we now have a sensible discussion of how to control what is after all a real problem, and a bigger problem for poor and minority neighborhoods than for the rest of us?

Robert Gordon thinks it might be time for progressives to talk about it. I’ve long thought it rather perverse that, with the burdens of crime and the costs of crime avoidance falling most heavily on poor and minority communities, liberals have tended to accept the notion that law enforcement is somehow naturally a “conservative” issue.

Yes, there are other things to do about crime other than punishing people who violate the laws, and some of them, such as nurse home visits and reducing exposure to lead, are typically “liberal,” well worth doing from a crime-control perspective and also have other benefits. But it’s also necessary to have cops, courts, community-corrections agencies, jails, and prisons, and getting those agencies to do their jobs well, and in particular to provide “equal protection of the laws” to make it as risky (in terms of apprehension and punishment) for criminals to victimize low-status people as it is to victimize high-status people.

The good news is that we know much better now than we did two decades ago how to have less crime and less punishment. The trick is to concentrate deterrent threats and communicate them directly to offenders. Now all we need is political leadership that wants to get past the tired “cops v. civil libertarians” game we’ve been playing since the 1960s and develop a set of social-cost-minimizing policies toward criminal victimization.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: