I recommend Mark Kleiman’s book, When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment.
Kleiman is a liberal, but it would be best to characterize this book as centrist, or perhaps radical centrist, as it departs from liberal orthodoxies even as it challenges conservative orthodoxies.
The United States imprisons people at a greater rate than any other country, which is kind of amazing in the “land of the free.” Yet there really is a lot of crime in this country–even if you exclude victimless drug offenses–so something has to be done.
Kleiman’s main point is to propose changes to the system of probation, to make it more effective and thereby a legitimate alternative to incarceration. In most states, the probation system is poorly thought out, and doesn’t effectively deter people from further offenses that get them thrown into prison. Kleiman talks about a program in Hawaii that makes probationers know more clearly when their next offense will lead to prison, and this certainty has a deterrent effect–leading to less imprisonment.
Kleiman also proposes an interesting technological solution–have probationers wear a GPS bracelet so that their movements can be tracked. Whenever there was a crime, it would be simple to determine if any probationers were present at the time. Letting the probationers know this would deter them, preventing crime and keeping them out of prison. This solution does sound a bit 1984ish. However, one a person is convicted of a crime, they lose some of their rights, and tightly supervised probation is more compassionate than incarceration.
Kleiman takes aims at some liberal orthodoxies, like dealing with “root causes” of crime. For instance, he puts the kabosh on the frequently heard argument that if we invested more in education, it would prevent kids from getting into trouble. He says, in fact, that most kids don’t get into trouble as it is, so that investing in education for everyone would be an extremely expensive way to reduce crime by a small amount. Kleiman believes that crime can be repressed without solving social inequalities.
He’s also skeptical of some gun control measures, like prohibiting legal gun owners from carrying concealed weapons. On the other hand, he favors closing the loophole that allows private gun sales without a background check (which could be a service provided by gun merchants). That loophole effectively undermines the whole system and allows anyone to easily purchase a gun, even felons and mentally ill people who would fail a background check.
He criticizes policies like “three strikes, your out” not only from the compassionate point of view that it sometimes punishes people disproportionately, but the hard-boiled point of view that it focuses resources on criminals who tend to be older and are at the tail end of their criminal career. Instead, he recommends focusing on young adult criminals with a long career ahead of them. He suggests that once an adult has been convicted of a crime, their criminal record as a youth (if any) should be unsealed. He says that sealing criminal records is meant to give youths a fresh start, but if they have spoiled that fresh start, their is no logic in keeping those records sealed. On the other hand, unsealing them would allow judges to determine whether the convicted person really was a first offender and should perhaps get probation, or fit the pattern of a career criminal and should be incarcerated.
I see Kleiman’s book as humanistic. In a perfect world, no one would commit crimes and no one would have to be incarcerated. The United States is far from perfect. Some deterrence is necessary, but their is something off-kilter in our system. Both the left and the right have tired and deeply imperfect solutions, and it appears that Kleiman has some clever ideas that deserve serious consideration.