Mike O’Hare reviews When Brute Force Fails

Consider skipping the book and just reading the review.

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.

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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

3 thoughts on “Mike O’Hare reviews When Brute Force Fails”

  1. "Consider skipping the book and reading the review instead"

    I'd love to do so, but since it's behind a paywall…

    How about Mike put it on his web site and you link to that?

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