When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment

When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment

When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment

When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment


Since the crime explosion of the 1960s, the prison population in the United States has multiplied fivefold, to one prisoner for every hundred adults--a rate unprecedented in American history and unmatched anywhere in the world. Even as the prisoner head count continues to rise, crime has stopped falling, and poor people and minorities still bear the brunt of both crime and punishment. When Brute Force Fails explains how we got into the current trap and how we can get out of it: to cut both crime and the prison population in half within a decade.

Mark Kleiman demonstrates that simply locking up more people for lengthier terms is no longer a workable crime-control strategy. But, says Kleiman, there has been a revolution--largely unnoticed by the press--in controlling crime by means other than brute-force incarceration: substituting swiftness and certainty of punishment for randomized severity, concentrating enforcement resources rather than dispersing them, communicating specific threats of punishment to specific offenders, and enforcing probation and parole conditions to make community corrections a genuine alternative to incarceration. As Kleiman shows, "zero tolerance" is nonsense: there are always more offenses than there is punishment capacity. But, it is possible--and essential--to create focused zero tolerance, by clearly specifying the rules and then delivering the promised sanctions every time the rules are broken.

Brute-force crime control has been a costly mistake, both socially and financially. Now that we know how to do better, it would be immoral not to put that knowledge to work.


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. Recently, the crime problem has diminished—though the downtrend stopped around 2004—but we still have a huge crime problem, to which we have now added a huge incarceration problem: there are now 2.3 million people behind bars at any one time, and that number continues to grow.*

Is there an alternative to brute force? There is reason to think so, and pieces of that alternative approach can be seen working in scattered places throughout the world of crime control. But the first step in getting away from brute force is to want to get away from brute force: to care more about reducing crime than about punishing criminals, and to be willing to choose safety over vengeance when the two are in tension.

Developing a consequence-focused approach to crime control would require that we blunt the emotional edge that debates about crime often have and ask the simple question: what are the stakes in crime control? If for a moment we thought about “crime” as something bad that happens to people, like auto accidents or air pollution or disease, rather than as something horrible that people do to each other—if we thought about it, that is, as an ordinary domestic-policy problem—then we could start to ask how to limit the damage crime does at as little cost as possible in money spent and suffering inflicted.

Except as noted, all statistics about crime rates, incarceration rates, numbers of ar
rests, probationers, parolees, and criminal-justice budgets are drawn either from the annual
Bureau of Justice Statistics Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics or the annual FBI Uniform
Crime Reports (published as Crime in the United States). Detailed page and table references and
extensive methodological notes are available. See http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9018

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