By the Numbers

When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment, By Mark A. R. Kleiman, Princeton University Press (September 2009)

The title of Mark. A. R. Kleiman’s new book on crime and incarceration reduction, When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment, allegedly comes from an engineering adage. If it’s not working, you’re not using enough, or so they say. Kleiman sets out to present alternative solutions, but the fact that he found inspiration in the mathematical realm of engineering gives the reader a good sense of the style and tone of the book.

Though passionate about the need to repair our criminal justice system, Kleiman eschews emotional personal portraits. Analytical and detailed, at times to a frustrating degree, When Brute Force Fails provides an onslaught of information. Eventually, organizing principles emerge. But because Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA, is so immersed in the argot of his field—more than ten pages of acknowledgements must surely name his every mentor and colleague—he sometimes fails to provide the birds eye view before delving into the messy scrub of specifics.

Kleiman’s goal seems straightforward: “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.” His prescription, however, is anything but simple.

With 2.3 million people in prison, Kleiman believes not only that the crime rate should be lower, but that incarceration may be adding to our problems. “The devastation wrought by incarceration itself—on the prisoners most of all, but also on their families and the neighborhoods where their absence is an important demographic fact—is now too great to ignore,” he writes.

Building on the “economic theory of crime” developed in the mid-1970s by University of Chicago economics professor and Nobel laureate Gary Becker, Kleiman approaches today’s criminal justice situation with exacting precision. High school economics class will come in handy, as concepts like cost/benefit analysis and positive feedback loops give shape to mountains of data. Though he relies on these frameworks, Kleiman also manages to avoid smoothing complexity.

Traditionally, the costs of crime are seen as victims’ losses and the price, in tax-paid dollars, of punishment. But in Kleiman’s mind, we have to account for the social costs, like the suffering caused to the prisoner and his family. “The notion that deserved suffering somehow ‘doesn’t count,’” he writes, “is a piece of mere hand-waving with no rational basis in terms of benefit-cost analysis.”

These typically ignored costs also introduce the first of many self-reinforcing systems inherent in our current criminal justice approach. “Crime to job loss to poverty to crime is a positive-feedback loop: high-crime neighborhoods tend to be low-opportunity neighborhoods, low-opportunity neighborhoods encourage criminal activity by their residents, and that criminal activity makes the neighborhoods even less attractive places in which to live and do business, and some of the residents less attractive as potential employees.”

If this sounds like a logical but unsupported pronouncement, fear not. Kleiman backs up his arguments with plenty of research and data, including economic equations and game theory models, which he then translates into practical applications. He shows how “swift and certain” punishment can “tip” high-violation populations into self-sustaining low-violation communities, with a net decrease in enforcement; how parole and probation can be more effectively monitored and used to reduce the number of prisoners; and how social services, like drug treatment, educational programs, and even environmental policy, when targeted at the right populations, can have a real, quantifiable impact on crime reduction.

Kleiman is non-partisan in his approach, aligned with neither the liberal “root causes” nor the conservative “severe consequences” solutions, allegiant only to numbers. In this way, with unconventional and creative analysis, he confirms only those aspects of partisan arguments that will produce results.

There’s an inherent appeal for those who enjoy mathematical elegance—until you remind yourself that Kleiman’s “rational actors” and “cohorts” are actual people. To see the humanity in When Brute Force Fails, you have to look beyond the text. Clearly, Kleiman has great empathy and concern for the individual’s well-being; the fact that he offers a full chapter of practical applications for his theories speaks to his desire to see real change. And he recognizes that people don’t always act rationally, or as economic models would predict. But the clinical tone risks quietly reinforcing the system’s most degrading effects.

On the other hand, television shows like The Wire and Brick City, the Sundance Channel’s new documentary series about Newark, illuminate the flaws (and successes) of our criminal justice system by tapping into our emotional core. While compelling, these portrayals risk aestheticizing a somber and dire problem. What keeps us from dismissing either approach is the underlying hope that something might actually work.


Katie Rolnick

Katie Rolnick is a freelance writer and co-editor of the Brooklyn Rail Books section.