This is an excellent panel discussion hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, and featuring comments from James Q. Wilson, Robert DuPont, and Sally Satel on Mark Kleiman’s book, When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime (and Less Punishment):


Kleiman discusses several ideas here, but his main point is that the criminal justice system operates best when we offer “swift and certain punishments for well-defined misbehaviors.”  During his comments, Kleiman places a special emphasis on the Hawaii HOPE Court, which informs offenders that they will be drug-tested relentlessly — twice a week — and incarcerated if they fail the test.  According to Kleiman, eighty percent of offenders are drug-free one year out of the Court.  This system, he argues, replaces severity of punishment (lenghty court proceedings followed by incarceration that last months — or even years) with swiftness and certainty.  Furthermore, Kleiman notes, the HOPE Court model allows limited treatment resources to be cost-effectively focused on the twenty percent of offenders who cannot get clean on their own.

James Q. Wilson calles Kleiman’s book a “brilliant, thoughtful, excellent analysis,” but cautions that Kleiman shouldn’t be too quick to disregard the importance of severity.  To make his point, Wilson offers a thought experiment.  Suppose a pill were invented that would prevent a rapist from ever commiting another rape.  If, after catching a rapist, we simply gave him the pill, would society be satisfied to set him free without punishment?  This may satisfy society’s need to ensure that another rape does not occur, but it hardly satisfies the victim’s justifiable need for retribution.  The lesson seems to be that swift and certain punishment, and a greater role for community policing are indeed desirable — but society should recognize the limits of these options when it comes to violent crimes.