Author Archive | Mark Kleiman, guest-blogging

Responses to Comments

When he invited me to post about crime and punishment, Eugene suggested that I might want to finish up with a response to comments.   That seems like a good idea.  So let me offer two general remarks, and some specific responses:

In general:

A.  I can’t read Eugene’s mind, but I suspect that he invited me to guest-blog (despite our basic disagreements) for the same reason that I regularly follow  this blog and other libertarian and conservative information channels.  The basic lesson of Bayesian analysis is that you can learn only from information that disconfirms some part of your current belief set.  But of course the natural tendency of the mind is to minimize cognitive dissonance by accepting confirming evidence and rejecting disconfirming evidence, and that tendency is emphasized when beliefs get to be badges of group membership.

This is a deeply unhealthy tendency, and it tends to defeat one of the basic evolutionary strategies of homo sapiens, which Karl Popper summed up as “letting our beliefs die in our place.”  Unfortunately, it has been on full display in the comment threads to my posts, which consisted (when the comments related to the posts at all rather than merely ranting about unrelated topics) mostly of vigorous attempts to prove that the thoughts offered in the posts were worthless or wicked, and the poster an ill-intentioned idiot.

Eugene no doubt thought he was doing his readers a favor by offering them some reading that might challenge their precoceptions.  There is little evidence in the comment thread that the VC readership shares that view, but it’s possible to hope that the comments are not a representative sample of reader reaction.

B.  The suggestion that various non-punitive programs might control crime, and that doing so was preferable, ceteris paribus, to [...]

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How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment: A Checklist

As the last in my series of guest-posts on crime and punishment, here’s a list of fairly specific recommendations.  They are designed to simultaneously reduce crime and incarceration, by (1) using prison cells more efficiently; (2) using punishments other than incarceration; and (3) controlling crime by means other than punishment.  The detailed justifications can be found in the book.

General and Budgetary

  • Treat arrests and punishments as costs, not benefits.
  • Emphasize swiftness and certainty of punishment rather than severity.
  • Design punishments with the maximum ratio of deterrent efficacy to (1) the suffering inflicted and (2) the damage to the non-criminal opportunities of those punished.
  • Concentrate enforcement rather than dispersing it.
  • Directly communicate deterrent threats.
  • Shift the burdens of crime and punishment away from otherwise disadvantaged groups, especially poor African-Americans who face much more of both.
  • Increase the budgets of criminal justice agencies when doing so will reduce either crime or incarceration.  Money is cheap compared to liberty.
  • Shift the mix of correctional budgets away from institutions (prisons and jails) and toward community corrections (probation and parole).  Spend more on controlling the behavior of those awaiting trial.


  • Add police to areas with high ratios of crimes to officers.
  • Focus on reducing crime and disorder, not on making arrests.
  • Identify and target high-rate serious offenders, with the goal of incapacitating them by incarceration.  Don’t neglect domestic violence in this analysis.
  • Identify those who only barely miss being targeted as high-rate serious offenders – the junior varsity – and warn them that continued criminal activity will result in their being added to the varsity list.   Select specific easy-to-observe crimes for “zero tolerance” treatment, either jurisdiction-wide or in specific areas.  Publicize those choices, with “narrowcast” warnings aimed at identified offenders as well as “broadcast” announcements.
  • Don’t try to destroy street gangs as
  • [...]

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Crime and punishment, race and class

The burdens of crime and incarceration are not evenly spread; instead, they are highly concentrated by race and class. Neither race nor class alone is a sufficient explanatory variable. (Bruce Western has done groundbreaking work on this.)

The picture is worst for African-Americans; even adjusting for overall lower incomes, African-Americans suffer much more crime than do members of other ethnic categories. Homicide provides the most dramatic example; representing less than 15% of the population, blacks suffer more than 50% of the murders.

Like all crime problems, this problem tends to be self-sustaining. Since enforcement and prosecution resources are much more equally distributed than is crime, an offender who commits a crime where crime is common is less vulnerable to arrest, vigorous prosecution, and a stiff sentence than an offender who commits the same crime in a more law-abiding neighborhood.

Strong patterns of residential segregation by race and class plus differential crime rates together mean that the average poor African-American grows up in a higher-crime environment than a white American of comparable income or a more prosperous African-American. And since higher-crime areas are also lower-punishment-per-crime areas, crimes committed against poor black people draw lower-than-average punishments.

Thus the current system fails to fulfill the Constitutional mandate of “equal protection of the laws,” if “equal protection” means that a crime against a poor or black person will be investigated as diligently, prosecuted as forcefully, and punished as severely as the same crime against a rich or white person.

Assuming that the threat of punishment has some deterrent effect, growing up where that threat is smaller – and licit economic opportunity less available – should be expected, other things equal, to lead to a higher rate of criminal activity. And indeed that is what we find. African-Americans are far more heavily victimized than others, [...]

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Benefits and costs: crime, crime avoidance, crime control

Crime has been a badly underestimated problem: more so among scholarly experts than among ordinary citizens or elected officials.  A1% reduction in crime provides economic value – measured in terms of willingness-to-pay – of something like $15 billion a year.

The material losses due to victimization are only a small part of the crime problem.  For example, property losses from residential burglary average out to $4 per house or apartment per month.   And yet, in a survey, people asked how much they would be willing to pay out of their own funds to reduce burglary in their community by 10% gave an average answer of $100 per year.

One difference between victimization losses and other costs is that victimization doesn’t just happen.  Victimization is done to someone by someone else.  Being singled out – even anonymously – by another person for ill-treatment is a different experience than being the victim of mere happenstance. “Even a dog,” said Justice Holmes, “knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked.”  

As a result, people make extensive efforts to avoid being victimized:  everything from double-locking doors to moving to the suburbs.  How, in the absence of crime, could one account for the coexistence of housing abandonment and new housing construction only a few miles apart?  The direct and secondary costs of crime avoidance easily swamp the immediate costs of victimization.  

Now, it might seem that if avoidance costs exceed victimization losses, the avoidance costs must be irrationally high.  Not so.  The victimization losses we observe are those that remain after potential victims have taken countermeasures in the forms of locks, burglar alarms, gated communities, and suburban addresses. One reason crime has fallen in the past decade is that potential victims – households and businesses – have moved away from high-crime [...]

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Positive feedback and strategic enforcement

If a group of individuals subject to some rule face an enforcement mechanism that is limited in its capacity, their rates of rule-violation will be interdependent.

Imagine a classroom of well-behaved children.  When Johnnie throws a spitball at Suzie, Ms. Jones can give him her full attention, and Johnnie learns (and the others learn vicariously) that he can’t get away with throwing spitballs in Ms. Jones’s class.

Now imagine a classroom full of unruly children.  When Johnnie throws a spitball at Suzie, Ms. Jones is too distracted by the need to break up the fight between Dick and Fred to have time to rebuke Johnnie, let alone the six others who are acting out at the same time.  Johnnie and the others learn that they can get away with almost anything in Ms. Jones’s class.

Thus both the well-behaved and the ill-behaved classroom are self-sustaining situations.  Indeed, they can be two equilibria of the same system:  the very same children with the very same teacher may wind up either well-behaved or ill-behaved as the result of random accidents at the beginning of the period.    This is an instance of the classic “tipping” model introduced by Thomas Schelling and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.

In such a situation, the following statements can be rigorously demonstrated using fairly minimal behavioral assumptions, as Beau Kilmer and I show in a paper called “The Dynamics of Deterrence” (published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and adapted as Chapter 4 of When Brute Force Fails):

  1. Increasing enforcement capacity can lower not only violation rates but the volume of punishment actually administered.
  2. A temporary increment to enforcement capacity can have a lasting impact on violation rates if it succeeds in “tipping” the system from its high-violation to its low-violation equilibrium.
  3. Even if
  4. [...]

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How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment

Thanks to Eugene’s generosity, I will have access to this space all week to expound what I see as a great moral and practical imperative:  to put our new knowledge of what controls crime into use, with the goal of achieving “half and half”:  half as much crime and half as many people behind bars in a decade as we have today.  (Here’s the a book-length version of the argument.)


Engineers have a sardonic saying:  “When brute force fails, you’re not using enough.”  For three decades, in the face of the great crime wave that started in the early 1960s, we have been trying to solve our crime problem with brute force:  building more and more prisons and jails. We now keep 2.4 million of our fellow human beings under lock and key at any one time, and that number has continued to grow despite the spectacular drop in crime between 1994 and 2004, which took crime rates to 50% of their peak levels.

Imprisonment at five times the historical level in the United States, and at five times the level of any of the countries with which we would like to compare ourselves, has not been sufficient to fully reverse the growth in crime; current crime rates are still at 2.5 times the level of the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Even that discouraging number understates how much worse things are now than they were half a century ago; today’s high crime rates persist in the face not only of ferocious punishment but also of greatly enhanced – and very costly – adaptations by potential victims to avoid being victimized.  Those adaptations range from buying alarm systems to moving to the suburbs.  Most of all, they involve avoiding risky situations.  The need to take such precautions [...]

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