Drug Roar: Deal or No Deal

By Daniel McQuade
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 20, 2009

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Photo by Ryan Collerd

Last week Hillary Clinton unveiled her crime plan, saying she wants to cut the murder rate in half. Part of the plan is a Drug Market Elimination Grant, which replicates a successful program first implemented in High Point, N.C., and refined elsewhere.

Open-air drug markets--that is, people dealing on street corners--can lead to violence and robberies. Dealers can't turn to the law to settle disputes, so they fight over turf. Businesses in the area suffer. Residents who can move out do. Those who stay feel helpless.

A recent report noted that more than one in 100 Americans is currently incarcerated. Some groups are hit harder than others. Among black men age 20 to 34, the number is one in nine. About 2.3 million people are currently behind bars. About a quarter of them are drug offenders.

There's no real proof that locking up this many people has made us safer. Not every drug dealer is a violent criminal. Some are simply economically disadvantaged men--often ex-cons--with few legitimate opportunities. There will always be drug customers, so there will always be drug dealers.

"Arrests are costs, not benefits," says UCLA drug policy analyst Mark Kleiman. "Doing it one at a time is completely worthless."

Arresting one dealer simply creates an open space for another dealer to move in. Cops have, at times, arrested all the drug dealers in an area, but the sweeps cripple the court system and breed mistrust between police and the community, especially since streetcorner dealers tend to be minorities.

David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, came up with the idea of a low-arrest drug crackdown, and successfully convinced the police chief of High Point to implement it.

The plan is remarkably simple: Police spend several months conducting surveillance and making controlled purchases from an open-air drug market.
Police also identify the dealers and contact key people in their lives: family, spiritual advisors, mentors, friends. Law enforcement arranges a meeting between the dealers and these key people to persuade the dealers to stop dealing. And after months of work, the district attorney also has an airtight case against the dealers--in some implementations, all the DA needs is a signature from a judge on the warrant.

But instead of arresting the offenders, law enforcement offers them a second chance: Stop dealing and we won't prosecute. The key people (and community leaders) give the dealers support, helping them find new jobs and improve their lives.

Almost overnight the drug market in High Point shut down. Anyone who moved in to deal or who continued dealing was arrested. Violent offenders were also arrested. Rates of violence and robberies associated with the open-air markets dropped immediately. In most places, it's had a lasting impact.

The added bonus is that enforcement has the explicit support of the community. Cops get violent offenders off the street without the racial tensions that often accompany drug crackdowns. And the young dealers who quit the drug market leave without a record, and can therefore attempt to find legitimate work.

Some law enforcement officials have blasted the plan, calling it "hug a thug" and saying it doesn't stop drug dealing. But current drug-law enforcement doesn't stop drug sales either. The low-arrest crackdown moves drug dealing from violent open markets into less violent, less explicit transactions.

Clinton's Drug Market Elimination Grant is an excellent plan, but the benefits of a low-arrest drug crackdown are so apparent there's no need to wait to see if she's elected president.

On Monday night Mayor Nutter was on Colbert Report saying he doesn't like people getting shot. Implementing David Kennedy's plan could do a lot more to make this city safer than any current legislation.

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