How drug laws spur vi­o­lence

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY DANIELLE ALLEN The writer is a po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist at Har­vard Univer­sity and a con­tribut­ing colum­nist for The Post.

To ar­gue for le­gal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana and de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion of other drugs does not, at first blush, ap­pear to put one on the side of the an­gels, es­pe­cially given the ac­cel­er­at­ing heroin epi­demic. But le­gal­iza­tion and de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion are what we need if we want to make head­way against mass in­car­cer­a­tion, high homi­cide rates in ur­ban black com­mu­ni­ties and poor ed­u­ca­tional out­comes in ur­ban schools. If we view drug use as a pub­lic health prob­lem, not a crime, we can fight drugs with­out pro­duc­ing the other sorts of so­cial dam­age we see all around us.

Amer­i­cans from all racial groups pur­sue nar­cotic-re­lated leisure ac­tiv­i­ties, spend­ing an es­ti­mated $100 bil­lion a year on their il­le­gal drugs, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from the White House Of­fice of Na­tional Drug Con­trol Pol­icy. In this cur­rent pe­riod of fairly ac­tive mil­i­tary en­gage­ment, the na­tion’s de­fense bud­get is roughly $600 bil­lion. In other words, our cul­ture of il­le­gal drug use must be pretty im­por­tant to amount to a full sixth of our bud­get for na­tional de­fense.

Yet de­spite this ev­i­dence of far-reach­ing so­cial ac­cep­tance of il­le­gal drug use, we con­tinue to lock up non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers. Ceas­ing this hyp­o­crit­i­cal prac­tice by re­leas­ing non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers is morally ur­gent. Yet this would be only a small step to­ward rec­ti­fi­ca­tion of the prob­lem of mass in­car­cer­a­tion. As the Web site Five Thirty Eight re­cently re­ported, such a move would re­duce our state and fed­eral pri­son pop­u­la­tions by only about 14 per­cent. We would still be the world’s lead­ing im­pris­oner.

The fur­ther-reach­ing rea­son to le­gal­ize mar­i­juana and de­crim­i­nal­ize other drugs flows from how the war on drugs drives vi­o­lent crime, which in turn pushes up in­car­cer­a­tion and gen­er­ates other neg­a­tive so­cial out­comes. You just can’t move $100 bil­lion worth of il­le­gal prod­uct with­out a lot of as­sault and homi­cide. This should not be a hard point to see or make. Crim­i­nol­o­gists and law en­force­ment per­son­nel alike ac­knowl­edge that the most com­mon ex­am­ples of “crim­ino­genic trends” that gen­er­ate in­creases in mur­der and other vi­o­lent crimes are gang and drug-re­lated homi­cides.

But there is also an­other, more sub­tle con­nec­tion be­tween the drug war and vi­o­lence, pin­pointed by econ­o­mists Bren­dan O’Fla­herty and Ra­jiv Sethi. As they ar­gue, above-av­er­age homi­cide rates will re­sult from low rates of suc­cess­ful in­ves­ti­ga­tion and pros­e­cu­tion of homi­cide cases. If you live in an en­vi­ron­ment where you know that some­one can shoot you with im­punity, you are much more likely to be ready to shoot to kill at the first sign of dan­ger. When mur­der goes un­pun­ished, it begets more mur­der, partly for pur­poses of re­tal­i­a­tion, partly be­cause peo­ple are em­bold­ened by law­less­ness, but also as a mat­ter of pre­emp­tion. Un­pun­ished mur­der makes ev­ery­one (in­clud­ing po­lice) trig­ger­happy. Such places op­er­ate ac­cord­ing to the dic­tum that the best de­fense is a strong of­fense.

Ma­jor ur­ban cen­ters of the drug trade are just such en­vi­ron­ments, plagued by low clear­ance rates for homi­cide. In Detroit, in the years ap­proach­ing the city’s bank­ruptcy, the homi­cide clear­ance rate verged on sin­gle dig­its. In Chicago, in 2009, po­lice cleared only 30 per­cent of homi­cide cases, many of them with­out charges. In one Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment bureau, clear­ance rates in the 60s mask the low rate of cases end­ing in ar­rest and pros­e­cu­tion. And clear­ance rates are low­est when vic­tims are black and brown, as Jill Leovy ex­plains in her new book, “Ghet­to­side.” In con­trast, in the 1960s, in the United States, the av­er­age clear­ance rate for homi­cide was above 90 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to NPR.

Why have homi­cide clear­ance rates fallen so low in th­ese ci­ties? Ac­cord­ing to crim­i­nol­o­gist Charles Well­ford, drug-re­lated homi­cides are harder to in­ves­ti­gate, pos­si­bly be­cause they are more likely to be stranger-to-stranger in­ci­dents and pos­si­bly be­cause the drug busi­ness gen­er­ates wit­ness-sup­pres­sion sys­tems. Ad­di­tion­ally, stop-and-frisk tac­tics have eroded trust in po­lice and fur­ther di­min­ished the will­ing­ness of wit­nesses to tes­tify. And, re­cently, jus­ti­fied anger over po­lice vi­o­lence has fur­ther re­duced the ca­pac­ity of the po­lice to func­tion well in in­ves­ti­gat­ing homi­cides.

Fi­nally, an over­loaded ju­di­cial sys­tem may well put prose­cu­tors in a po­si­tion where they wish to pur­sue only open-and-shut cases that will gen­er­ate plea deals. Ac­cord­ing to a re­tired po­lice of­fi­cer in­ter­viewed by NPR, Ver­non Ge­berth, po­lice nowa­days have a higher bar to get over in try­ing to clear a case be­cause prose­cu­tors want only those eas­ier cases.

And what is the No. 1 source of this pros­e­cu­to­rial over­load? Ac­cord­ing to fed­eral ju­di­cial caseload statis­tics, in U.S. dis­trict courts in 2013, 32 per­cent of de­fen­dant fil­ings were for drug-re­lated cases, mak­ing this the big­gest cat­e­gory of fil­ings. State ju­di­cial sys­tems, too, have been sig­nif­i­cantly strained for financial resources and per­son­nel by dru­gre­lated case­work. Add to this pic­ture the fact that plenty of vi­o­lent of­fend­ers in our na­tion’s pris­ons started out as non­vi­o­lent drug of­fend­ers, and you have a com­plete pic­ture of just how much the drug war it­self has been a gen­er­a­tor of vi­o­lence.

The drug war is a per­fect ex­am­ple of the breakdown of the rule of law and the knock-on ef­fects of such a breakdown. Our drug laws are fun­da­men­tally un­en­force­able, and this dis­torts the ju­di­cial sys­tem, in­clud­ing by pro­duc­ing pros­e­cu­to­rial over­load, which is a driver of low homi­cide clear­ance rates, which beget a cul­ture of in­creas­ing vi­o­lence, which puts more fa­thers of young chil­dren be­hind bars or un­der the ground, makes it harder for chil­dren in poor, ur­ban ar­eas to walk to school safely, and forces on those chil­dren a choice be­tween the cul­ture of the schools, in­side the rule of law, and the cul­ture of the streets, out­side the rule of law. Since Plato, we have known that the power of schools to de­velop the minds of the young de­pends on an align­ment of the worlds in­side and out­side the school. The cul­ture of vi­o­lence in ur­ban ar­eas, be­got­ten by the war on drugs and a re­flec­tion of the fail­ure of the rule of law, is the op­po­site of a healthy con­text for learn­ing.

Why is it so hard for us to see how pro­foundly a $100 bil­lion il­le­gal mar­ket in any­thing, even in pop­corn or “My Lit­tle Pony” toys, would dis­tort a so­ci­ety? Can there be any other rea­son for our fail­ure to see this than that black and brown peo­ple bear the brunt of th­ese dis­tor­tions? If we care for the safety and hap­pi­ness of the whole of our so­ci­ety, as we must, then it is time to le­gal­ize mar­i­juana, de­crim­i­nal­ize other drugs and re­cast drug use as a pub­lic health prob­lem, not a crime.

Why is it so hard for us to see how pro­foundly a $100 bil­lion il­le­gal mar­ket in any­thing would dis­tort a so­ci­ety?


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