Crime as a worldwide issue

Governments need to learn how to prevent people from hurting one another and taking one another’s stuff, without resorting to intolerably high levels of punishment. The current debate on the subject isn’t very useful.

The New York Times headlines Damien Cave’s story about the likely victory of Enrique Peña Nieto  “Pocketbook Issues Weigh Heavily as Mexicans Vote.” But the story itself is about the impact of crime, and especially extortion, on the lives of ordinary Mexicans. (Cave might also have mentioned kidnapping, which is no longer a problem for the rich alone.)

Around the world – Brazil and South Africa are two other major examples – governments are having problems delivering on their most basic function: keeping people from hurting one another and taking one another’s stuff. There’s no faster way to discredit democracy.

That makes all the sadder that the debate over crime control remains largely locked in a futile “punishment v. social improvement” (or, in the smaller world of offender management, “punishment v. services”) debate. Conservatives ignore the fact crime continues in the face of truly massive punishment here in the U.S., and progressives remain tempted by the idea that “crime” is just an imaginary problem invented by reactionaries to justify the oppresssion of the poor. (Progressive politicians have largely learned not to say that out loud, but their silence about crime speaks volumes.) It’s as if the discussion were entirely conducted among disciples of Michel Foucault and the disciples of the Marquis de Sade, with no room for any idea too “carceral” for the Foucauldians and not mean enough for the sadists.

Don’t you wish someone would write a book on how to have less crime and less punishment? That book could be based on three simple insights: credible threats can substitute for actual punishments; swiftness and certainty trump severity; and anything that improves individuals’ capacities for self-command reduces their criminality.


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:

7 thoughts on “Crime as a worldwide issue”

  1. I’m not sure if Mark is too harsh on the progressives or lets them off too easily. At one time, progressives were tempted by the idea of a crime as a social construct, built to oppress the poor and marginalized. But the Progressives outgrew that idiocy in the 1970’s. However, I think that Mark is noticing something real, even if his analysis is off. Maybe two somethings. First, Progressives still cannot live with the idea of retribution in punishment. They can handle deterrence, incapacitation (at least for the Willie Boskets), and rehabilitation, but are still disgusted by retribution. This isn’t a significant policy problem. Here, progressives and conservatives can agree to disagree on ends, while adopting very similar means with which the other side can live with.
    Second, and more significantly, Progressives are a bit too squeamish to deal with crime. Good policing is a mixture of social work, threats, and outright violence. Too many progressives would rather not think of the latter two. This does create significant policy problems, because it creates completely unrealistic expectations of the police. The cops, subject to unrealistic oversight, respond by blocking oversight whenever possible.
    A small example of this (IIRC) came up with taped interrogations. The cops and prosecutors, knowing how ugly even a legal interrogation can be (lots of lying and manipulation), did not want tapes that the juries could see. In Illinois, they were compelled anyway. Juries–who may be more sensible in this regard than progressive elites–continued to convict.

    1. I am aware of several, overlapping, reasons for punishment in response to crime:

      1) to discourage it and reduce its incidence
      2) as an expression of society’s opinion about the action
      3) vengeance

      I think most people on becoming familiar with my values and poltical opinions would have no problem labeling me as a progressive; within limits, I have no problem with any of these justifications for punishment. I think all are important. I do not think its role in either (2) or (3) to be disgusting. I believe that all are reasonable, legitimate, reasons for retribution, not only for crime control but also to strengthen social solidarity and reduce alienation from society. Except perhaps for my willingess to state this view about vengeance, I do not believe that I am unusual among progressives.

      What concerns me about “retribution in punishment” (and I think most progressives) is the way we apply it in our country, both the unevenness of application especially with regard to race and class, and the lack of concern that those on the receiving end are the same individuals as those who indeed committed the crime in question. Until we can substantially solve these problems, “retribution in punishment” will be problematic.

      Finally, the first reason above admits of measurement; is “retribution in punishment” an efficient means toward the goal of crime reduction? Here, not only is there evidence that it is not, but MK has written about alternatives that appear to be far superior.

  2. Once again you libel progressives for not talking about crime at your proposed frequency and vigor. Perhaps they have noticed that attempting to speak rationally on certain subjects in a roomful … Or nation full … Of mouth breathing idiots in the grip of bloodlust over the media hyped “super predators” and phony crime stats only cause ever more reactionary policies to be enacted?

    I think back to the days when people objected to how racially biased sentencing was. Our reward was draconian mandatory minimums —applied even-handedly, of course! — while the discretion all shifted to the prosecutors, who continue to ensure that white suburban kids don’t go up the river for hard time the way their dark skinned brethren do.

    Between welfare reform and health care reform, we have proven that there is no reactionary idea that democrats, the so-called progressives, will not adopt from the GOP boiler rooms, and that the GOP will not immediately define as the outermost bound of liberal perfidy, thereby accomplishing in a leap the amount of Overton window shifting that would take decades against a principled opposition of actual progressives.

  3. Mark,

    I’ve taught a course on the philosophy of punishment, and used your book as one of my texts. In a handout that I prepared to explain to my students the theory of deterrence that is developed by Beccaria and Bentham and then used by you in some fascinating new ways, I used some baby math. One equation was first presented in this form:

    Value of a punishment = Severity [in subjective terms] x Probability x Proximity [in time].

    (And I later assumed that ‘proximity’, like probability, would be measured by a number between 0 and 1, so that a punishment that immediately followed a crime would be represented by 1; a punishment in the indefinite future by 0.)

    My question is this: if this is the right way to represent the psychology of deterrence, why say that swiftness and certainty ‘trump’ severity? Isn’t it correct to say that each of the factors is equal in importance? Given the ways that we would measure them, any change in one could be duplicated by a corresponding change in either of the other two.


  4. Steve, I doubt the relationship is simply multiplicative. The evidence seems to be that very swift and consistent punishment can be astonishingly mild and still work, while delayed random punishment mostly doesn’t work even if it’s absurdly severe.

  5. I think you’re being unfair, Mark. JMG said most of it so I won’t repeat, but exactly what is it that you’re trying to complain about here? That there is not enough DP support for HOPE? Well, give it more than ten minutes, for crying out loud. There’s kind of a lot sh*t hitting the fan just about now, if you hadn’t noticed!! I think your program sounds great, but honestly, if you think progs aren’t up to it, I don’t see much hope. The prison industrial complex has a lot of power. But then, does HOPE actually increase or decrease those jobs, I wonder? (And no, that wouldn’t be a reason to oppose HOPE per se, I’m just asking the question.)

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