Fighting Crime, Fighting Drugs?

Today I read two articles which gave me quite a bit of cognitive dissonance.  One was this column in the Rockford Register Star about the recent meeting held by Senator Dick Durbin, and others, on reducing crime in Rockford.  The article, and others before and after the meeting, describes both the “get your act together” message and the focus of the problem — gangs, guns, and drugs.  Mention is made that Rockford is a distribution center for drugs on their way to Chicago or Milwaukee, and that this is a big part of our crime problem.  People speculate that the rise in armed robberies and home invasions is due to the need for money to buy drugs.

The other article I read, “The Most Embarrassing Graph in American Drug Policy” was in the Washington Post, by Harold Pollack.  It reproduces this graph:



Drug policy in this country has been long designed to increase prices — to eradicate producers, make life hard on sellers, and make drugs more expensive to buy.  But drug prices have fallen throughout the war on drugs, while incarceration rates have risen dramatically.  Only in the Great Recession have governments begun, finally, to question the wisdom of locking up so many drug users at great cost to taxpayers.

And, of course, the drug-war is racially biased in its application and design.  Suburbanites using illegal oxycontin don’t have their doors knocked in and do not spend 10 years in jail.  But young black men with a few joints do.  If you haven’t read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, you should.  It describes exactly what’s going on.

As Pollack notes, things are changing.  The use of special drug courts is diverting simple users to treatment instead of jail (and we are starting to use this approach here).  Criminologists like David Kennedy have changed the way we approach drug markets, an approach being used in Rockford and which is reducing drug-market related violence.

If adults are selling, buying and using drugs, this is not a crisis.  It might be a personal tragedy for that family, and it might be a public health problem.  But it is not a criminal threat.  If gangs, who make their money through the drug trade, are resorting to murder and theft, that’s a criminal threat — not a drug problem, but a gang problem.  If someone robs a store or a house, no matter what they want the money for, that’s a criminal threat.  Instead of “fighting drugs” as a way to reduce crime, let’s just fight crime.

Instead of wasting police resources on tracking and locking up pot users, heroin addicts, and their friends and relations; let’s use those resources to stop actual crime – robberies, murders, assaults, and so forth.  Treat drug addiction as a health problem.  And make the message clear to gangs and dealers: if you sell to adults only, without any violence or other crime, we won’t bother you.  But if you use violence to control territory, or you rob others, or if you sell to kids, then we — city, county, state, and feds working together — will come down on you like a ton of bricks.

The building blocks of this approach are in place in Rockford.  In our concern about crime, let’s not get confused.  Let’s not make a bunch of drug arrests, because they are easy to make, in order to make it look like we’re doing something.  Let’s stop bickering between departments, and stop getting defensive and pointing out that crime is down (it is, but not enough).  Let’s build stronger neighborhoods, where the residents work together, and with the law, to keep things safe.  Fight crime? Yes.  Target violent gangs?  Yes.  Expand the war on drugs?  No, let’s not.  We can make our city safer, but only if we focus on the right things.