In Memory of Mark Kleiman

A brilliant criminal justice scholar and intellectual giant, he changed the way we think about drug policy.

Dr. Mark Kleiman, a towering figure in drug and crime policy analysis, and a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, died on July 21 with his beloved sister Kelly and cherished friends at his side. An honest and witty writer to the end, he movingly documented his final years battling heart problems, cancer, and kidney failure in a series of posts on the widely-read blog he founded, Reality-Based Community.

Mark was a classic “inside-out” public intellectual who spent as much of his career implementing public policy as he did studying and teaching it. He began his career in government, serving as an aide to former Congressman Les Aspin, followed by service as a policy researcher for the City of Boston and then the U.S. Department of Justice. He eventually transitioned to academia, holding positions over the years at Harvard, UCLA, and New York University. But throughout his time in government, he was in close contact with the world of academic research, and throughout his time in academia, he was constantly advising office holders and civil servants on the best evidence for certain policies regarding alcohol, narcotics, crime, and incarceration.

Mark’s dazzling mind knew no guardrails, and was an endless fount of creative ideas. There are many for which he will be remembered, but perhaps his most significant was his sweeping analysis on these pages of how swift, predictable, and fair penalties for criminal behavior can simultaneously reduce crime and put fewer people in jail. He also made major contributions to our understanding of how drug markets function, the impact of different approaches to law enforcement, and strategies for turning back mass incarceration. Mark summarized many of these ideas in his brilliant, award-winning bookWhen Brute Force Fails.

Mark loathed oversimplified descriptions of complex social problems, and I would be letting him down if I didn’t do justice to his own complexities as a scholar and a person. Though he was a passionate, partisan Democrat, he commanded respect from many conservatives, counting a number among his friends. He was an advocate of marijuana legalization long before it was in fashion, but he had enormous reservations about the pro-corporate, anti-public health direction that legalization was heading toward in the United States. He had a huge circle of friends, but a solitary side as well (he never married or had children). He was drawn to study serious, indeed tragic, social problems, yet he had a light spirit and a delightful sense of humor. He was a successful academic despite doing remarkably little empirical research. Indeed, Mark was often skeptical of the complex quantitative models that now dominate academic policy analysis. Instead, he often drew his evidence from classic books (e.g., the work of Bentham and Beccaria) and from informal observations he made in courtrooms, jails, and probation departments.

Mark’s academic and policy legacy is truly astounding. His imprint is reflected in federal and state legislation, and, in the best current thinking about crime and drugs. His influence also lives on in the careers of the many policy researchers that he mentored, a task for which he had a rare gift. Those of us who were fortunate enough to know Mark as a person and scholar will miss him greatly.

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Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.