New York Times
October 6, 1990
Wrong Way to Fight Crime
Michael Z. Letwin; Michael Z. Letwin is president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys.
Faced with understandable alarm over rising violence, Mayor David Dinkins has proposed a $1.8 billion anti-crime plan, most of it devoted to greater numbers of police and jail cells. Even if it survives intact in the face of the city’s financial troubles, the plan is unlikely to roll back the violence that is an inevitable result of an illegal crack trade flourishing amidst deepening poverty.
As the Prohibition Era made plain, when addictive substances are criminalized, users and traders resort to violence to obtain and sell them. Unable to contain the violence, law enforcement only compounds the harm.
Today, because crack is illegal and its high is short-lived, poor users -unlike their Wall Street brethren -commit street crime and sell drugs to support habits that can cost as much as $100 a day. In addition, the immense, artifically inflated profit in illegal drugs, combined with dwindling economic opportunity, draws young people into the low-level trade.
Turf wars over those profits have turned entire inner-city neighborhoods into free-fire zones where, in the last few months, numerous victims have been small children, such as three-year-old Benjamin Williams.
Over all, fully half the city’s 1988 homicides were drug-related, and three-quarters of those resulted from competition for control of street-level drug traffic. Drug-related violence encourages the settlement of even petty disputes with guns and knives. The 1990 homicide rate is already 19 percent above last year’s record figure of 1,905, excluding the victims of the Happy Land social club fire. And while bloodshed has long plagued poor neighborhoods, roving bands of angry and alienated youths have increasingly brought it into formerly “safe” areas, an example of which was the recent murder of Brian Watkins in midtown Manhattan.
In the face of these powerful dynamics, highly touted police programs have consistently proved themselves to be impotent. Experts report that the New York Police Department’s Operation Pressure Point on Manhattan’s Lower East Side probably drove crime and drugs elsewhere; an August 1989 internal Police Department report admits that drug traffic in the target area continues indoors.
New York’s Tactical Narcotics Team sweeps have had even less success in reducing drugs and crime, despite the allocation of huge sums of money, tens of thousands of drug arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations. The drug trade simply shifts to another area. Apprehended dealers are replaced from a seemingly bottomless pool, for jail is not a deterrent to those who daily risk death in the drug trade. The Department’s recent “community policing program,” Operation Take Back, has been similarly ineffective.
Identical results have come in from around the U.S. Although the District of Columbia police have twice the officers per capita as New York City, the capital has a homicide rate three times as high. In Oakland, Calif., a frustrated police lieutenant said: “Don’t say give me more cars, give me more guns, give me more cops. That’s been tried before, and it doesn’t work.”
Escalated police programs have succeeded only in crippling the criminal justice system and assaulting predominantly minority New Yorkers with illegal searches and seizures, frame-ups, physical abuse and questionable police shootings.
As a result of these policies and racially discriminatory sentencing, almost one in four young African-American men in New York is in jail, prison, on probation or parole. Worse, such policies are paid for by cutting to the bone services such as health care, housing, sanitation, libraries, education and residential drug treatment programs.
New York and other cities can be made safer only by treating drugs as a health and economic problem. Decriminalization would dramatically curtail street crime and turf wars by deflating the price of drugs and making them legally available to those who use them. Instead of punishment, treatment could be provided for those who need it.
But decriminalization is neither a complete nor permanent solution to drug abuse, crime and violence. They will yield only when racial and economic justice offer hope to every member of our community.