Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A Campaign For Well-Reasoned Crime Policies

We have now officially entered the political season.

The attorney general’s office has expanded its “No Deals” program just in time for the election, and press conferences are being held that treat garden variety drug dealers as if a Columbian drug ring has been crushed.

Of course, it’s impossible to have an election cycle without a flurry of law and order pledges and crackdowns on crime. Because no one wants to be seen as “soft” on crime, the local budget spent on law enforcement is as sacrosanct as the Defense Department’s budget in Washington, D.C.

These days, the total amount spent by Memphis and Shelby County Governments for law enforcement, prosecution and incarceration exceeds $400 million a year, and in the space of about five years, county government saw its funding for prosecutors, law enforcement and jails increase by 50 percent.

You’ll hear a lot about crime during the next few months as candidates out law and order each other, but there’s two things you won’t hear: 1) all of these much vaunted crime-fighting ideas don’t have nearly as much impact on the crime rate as demographic trends, and 2) we’re wasting millions of dollars chasing marijuana offenders.

First, demographics. Remember those grim predictions about 15 years ago that the 1990’s would have an epidemic of juvenile crime as violent and drug-crazed teens took to our cities’ streets. The Northeastern University academician with Memphis ties, James Fox, foretold of a time when superpredators would ravage society and capsize America’s cities with a coming crime storm.

So, what really happened? The teen crime rate plummeted. The predictions flopped.

It turns out that what passes for crime forecasting most of the time is similar to what passes for city budgetary planning. It’s a straight line theory; predictions were essentially trends extended along a straight line until they reached the stratosphere.

It turns out the real convergence isn’t teens and crime. It’s political self-interest and hysterical crime scares. Law enforcement officials routinely overstate crime waves, particularly those involving youth crime, because of the political benefits of conjuring up politically raw images of marauding teens terrorizing neighborhoods.

This isn’t to make light of the problem that exists in some parts of Memphis. It’s only to suggest that more reason should be injected into the conversation, reason that looks at the seedbed conditions causing crime, not merely the symptoms themselves. It’s only to suggest that if we are willing as a community to spend more than $15,000 a year to keep someone in jail, perhaps we should consider spending a fraction of that amount to deal with the conditions that contribute to problems in the first place.

Because most of the crime trends and alarming reports spring from political systems, there is no urgency to correct the record. Once crime didn’t take off as predicted (although it did accomplish the goal of getting the funding for prosecutors and law enforcement increased dramatically), what was the explanation for no increase in crime rates? Why, tough new legislation and strict law enforcement of course.

Amazingly enough, when the political smoke is removed and you drill down into FBI reports, you learn that juvenile arrest rate has been largely flat for years. (There’s the Freakonomics connection between abortion rates and lower crime rates, but we won’t get into that.)

Second, marijuana. In the past few years, the drug war has moved from hard drugs to marijuana, which now accounts for almost half of all drug arrests in the U.S. Here, the West Tennessee Violent Crime and Drug Task Force proudly reports that it has seized about two tons of pot.

It is striking that at a time when most Western countries are treating marijuana use as akin to alcohol use, the U.S. has ramped up another drug war focusing on it. A study of FBI data concluded that the percentage of heroin and cocaine cases has dropped from 55 percent of all drug arrests in 1992 to less than 30 percent. Meanwhile, marijuana arrests rose from 28 to 45 percent of total arrests.

It’s no surprise that the increased focus on marijuana produced a dramatic rise in drug arrests, which apparently was the objective all along. Drug arrests climbed by almost 35 percent, and of that increase, 80 percent stemmed from marijuana charges.

It would seem logical that the “war on terror” would make the “war on drugs,” or at least the war on marijuana, less of a priority. Even the American Enterprise Institute asked last year in a report, “Are We Losing The War On Drugs?” if “criminal punishment of marijuana use does not appear to be justified,” and conservative icon William Buckley of course has long railed against it.

The liberal group, the Sentencing Project, estimates that one in four people in state prisons for marijuana offenses are low-level offenders, and that the U.S. is spending about $4 billion a year on arresting and prosecuting marijuana crimes. It should also come as no surprise that while African-Americans make up 14 percent of marijuana users, they account for nearly one-third of all marijuana arrests.

Faced with U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ formation of a committee to prosecute violent drug gangs and crack down on methamphetamine manufacturers, it seems like we’re well past the time for a reevaluation of our drug policies regarding marijuana and our over-amped law and order rhetoric.


Larry said...

Well, well ... a subject we can agree on! I would ask you to cite your references for your comments so that I can use them.

I remember back in 2000 when I was still in law enforcment and the jail was under a court order to reduce overcrowding, we were told not to do a physical arrest for marijuana ... write a misdemeanor citation and send the person on.

As a speaker for LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), I have spoken to several civic groups about the failure of the War on Drugs. I think you'd be amazed at how many people (liberal, conservative, and libertarian) are open to the idea of legalization.

mike said...

After Gibbons announced the new "No Deals" expansion, the Memphis Flyer had a brief article that put numbers to the situation. I don't have the link any more, but it was only fifty to 75 more cases a year, a literal drop in the bucket of Memphis and Shelby County crime. The particular crimes chosen were picked because they wouldn't cause too serious an extra load on their office.

Smart City Consulting said...

Hey, Larry, I bet we agree on lots more than you think.