Controlling Crime With Credible Threats

Allentown needs a lot more cops, but there are things that the city – and Lehigh County – can be doing to decrease crime even without adding more cops.

Here’s Mark Kleiman on the High Point strategy, one of the “game theory” crime control strategies that’s showing huge results:

David Kennedy’s “High Point” drug enforcement strategy – now known generically as the Drug Market Intervention (DMI) – seems to have scored again, this time in Newport News, VA. The idea is to identify all the dealers in a flagrant market that is causing neighborhood problems, make cases against all of them, and then threaten them all simultaneously that if they don’t stop dealing you’re ready to put them in prison (while with the other hand offering them help if they want to turn their lives around). The program relies on the support of the neighborhood, including the families of the dealers. When the police ask in the right way, that support is usually forthcoming.

On one point The Economist gets the story badly wrong. The reporter asserts flatly that prison doesn’t work as a deterrent. But in fact DMI relies precisely on the threat of prison. (That makes it unlike the HOPE program for drug-using felons on probation or parole, which relies on much milder threats of a few days in jail.) What the two programs have in common is the preference for threats over actual punishments. A credible threat rarely needs to be carried out, making it far preferable from the viewpoint of the public and the offenders alike.

One of the things that’s so maddening about the fractured system of local government is that authority over police strategy is also fractured. Obviously this program would be most effective if all the police departments in the county were on the same page.


  1. Spend some time and read up on Giuliani’s ‘broken window’ approach to crime. That is what’s needed here, desperately.

    By going down this path you’re ignoring what’s going on in Allentown that destroys the quality of life and makes more significant crime more probable.

    It’s a much bigger deal than you’re recognizing.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      This is post-‘broken windows’. Here’s Mark Kleiman on James Q Wilson who invented broken windows. Incorporates all the important points about broken windows but without needing to resort to the mass incarceration which is its legacy. Republican governors are loving this stuff, you should read up on it before criticizing.


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