From a glass-half-full perspective, we are in a period where the dismal and often counter-productive patterns of the “crime debate” in American politics are finally yielding some grounds for optimism. Violent crime rates have continued to come down to a degree that is astonishing to those of us who came of age during the long upward crime spiral from the 1960s to the 1990s. Even levels of incarceration, long America’s great shame, are coming down. And as explained by David Dagan and Steven Teles in the November-December 2012 issue of the Washington Monthly, in conservative circles there’s a growing backlash against maximum incarceration as an all-purposes crime policy, a trend that in turn will help liberate Democrats from supporting the same policy out of fear of looking “weak on crime.” As Kevin Drum has famously helped us understand, new research on the cognitive and social implications of lead poisoning may show ways to reduce crime that don’t involve cops and prisons.

There’s even some forward momentum, albeit of a puny and potentially futile extent, towards a renewed discussion of gun regulation.

But in the latest issue of Democracy, one of our most distinctive and original thinkers about crime policy, Mark Kleiman (whose work is frequently highlighted at Ten Miles Square, and who had a big impact on me back in the early 1990s when I worked on crime issues), pours cold water on all the optimism, and suggests that our crime “debate” remains stuck in most of its old ruts, even as resources are denied to a handful of policy innovations that might make improvements in both crime-reduction and true justice possible.

Kleiman looks at the politics of crime and sees the old patterns still in place:

[T]he debate over criminal-justice policy often seems to take place between the disciples of Michel Foucault and the disciples of the Marquis de Sade, with the Foucauldians winning the academic debate even as the sadists mostly get their way in the real political world. The resulting policies manage to combine enormous cruelty with unsatisfactory crime-control results: The United States leads the developed world in both homicide and incarceration, and both of those evils land most heavily on poor African Americans.

He notes that for all the crime-rate improvements, violence remains at entirely unacceptable levels in low-income and particularly African-American neighborhoods, the same communities ravaged by high incarceration rates. And indeed, he argues, the “debate” often ignores the fact that victims and perps cannot be neatly isolated from each other. So instead of happy-talk alternating with spasms of “get-tough” symbolism, we should continue to try to focus on what works in reducing crime and counter-productive forms of punishment simultaneously:

I argue that (blue-collar) crime—theft and assault, in all their varieties—is still a real and major problem; that its economic and social costs are vastly under-appreciated; that its primary victims are disadvantaged minorities and poor people; that the current criminal-justice system wrongs them by under-enforcing the law against those who victimize them (who are, of course, mostly people like them in racial and class terms); that better criminal-justice policy could give us less crime and less incarceration; and that better and more equal law enforcement ought therefore to be as central a progressive political goal as better and more equal education or health care.

Those familiar with Kleiman’s work won’t be surprised to learn he thinks the great under-explored area of crime policy involves the vast number of people who are not in prison but are under the supervision of the criminal justice system via probation or parole, and who can be deterred from recidivism (and from the substance abuse that often feeds the crime habit) with the right incentives and disincentives:

If you’re looking for a single “root cause” of crime, look no further: The cause is bad decision-making by offenders. And the solution must lie in some combination of improving that decision-making process and devising deterrent threats that actually deter reckless, impulsive, short-term-oriented people, which the current regime of randomized draconian responses so dramatically fails to do….

Where swift-and-certain sanctions for enforcing community corrections rules have been tried—and where the system has been properly organized, first to deliver the clear warnings and then to deliver on the threats when necessary—the results have been astounding. Drug-using offenders supervised under those conditions achieve much bigger reductions in drug use than result from the mandatory drug treatment; 80 percent of long-term criminally active users of hard drugs turn out to be able to quit under steady pressure. That in turn leads to reductions of 50 percent or more in new crimes and, crucially, days spent behind bars. Those results make swift-and-certain sanctions programs—which, along with Hawaii, have been tried in Texas, Washington state, California, and (focusing on alcohol) South Dakota—easily the most promising approach to reducing crime rates and incarceration rates both relatively quickly (over the next few years) and dramatically.

Pursuing this advice could actually reinforce conservative re-thinking on incarceration as the answer, and offer an alternative to drug policies that either continue the idiotic “just say no” War on Drug approach or ignore the connection between crime and substance abuse. And compared to the status quo or any viable alternative, smarter criminal justice supervision practices, like smarter policing, are demonstrably cost-effective.

Whether or not you buy Kleiman’s particular prescriptions, he’s right that the thaw in crime policy thinking is an opportunity rather than an easy answer, particularly among progressives who if not personally affected by crime tend to want to look the other way or treat the subject as “enemy turf” politically.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.