Pubdate: Mon, 14 Apr 2008
Source: New Republic, The (US)
Copyright: 2008 The New Republic
Author: Kurt L. Schmoke
Note:Author is the Dean of Howard Law School and from 1988 to 1999 served as
mayor of Baltimore.
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)


The former mayor of Baltimore on how the next president should reform
the U.S.'s drug policy.

A different commander-in-chief will soon assume leadership of the War
on Drugs. Let's hope that a new leader will implement a new strategy,
because for nearly a century now-- following the passage of the
Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914--America's War on Drugs has been seen
primarily as a criminal justice problem.

And for nearly a century, we've seen this approach to fighting drugs
fail and fail and then fail again.

Almost nobody's pleased with the results.

So my question is: Why haven't we been able to change

And why haven't we been able to convince policymakers and the public
to deal with one of our great domestic blights the way it should be
dealt with: primarily as a public health issue?

It has been twenty years since I, as Mayor of Baltimore, joined in
efforts led by others to reform America's national drug control
policy. Prior to my election, I had served as a loyal foot solider in
the drug war as a prosecuting attorney.

From that vantage point, I viewed the drug problem one-dimensionally,
as a crime problem.

Drug dealers and users were to be arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated,
and their material gains were to be seized.

The assumption was (and remains) that in time this would decrease the
problem and rid our cities of the scourge of substance abuse.

Throughout the country, major arrests and drug seizures were announced
with great fanfare.

Cars, planes, boats, and houses were confiscated. Arrest and
incarceration statistics soared.

The public perception was that we were winning the War on

Once I became mayor, I viewed the drug problem from a different
perspective. I came to see it as a three-headed monster of crime,
AIDS, and addiction.

As I listened to the body wire worn by Baltimore Police Detective
Marty Ward shortly before he was killed by a drug dealer, I learned
that there were people who were more hooked on drug money than on
drugs, and that the only way to stop them was to take the profit out
of distributing drugs at the street level.

As I met with dozens of babies born drug addicted and HIV positive,
the victims of intravenous-drug-using mothers, I discovered the need
for public intervention to protect these innocent children.

And as I spoke with teachers about the number of children who came to
school from homes where one or more adults were addicted, I saw how
the lure of "the corner" could overwhelm the imperative to learn.

It became clearer and clearer to me that the victims of the drug war
couldn't be helped solely by increasing the prison population.

Unfortunately for opponents of the prevailing national drug control
policy, the political environment rarely allows for a dispassionate
discussion of policy alternatives. Those who argue for drug policy
reform are labeled as soft on crime, a damaging characterization that
most politicians desperately wish to avoid.

I remember well the harsh bipartisan criticism I encountered when I
began questioning the rationale of the War on Drugs twenty years ago.
Two things helped me to weather the storm: a four-year term and the
fact that I had been a prosecuting attorney before my election as mayor.

Most congressmen, running every two years, do not enjoy that kind of
political protection.

The inertia the political environment creates is especially
frustrating because good alternatives--most notably, "harm reduction"
and "therapeutic sentencing"--have existed for some time now. The
basic tenet of harm reduction, as noted by the Drug Policy Alliance,
is that drug policies should seek to reduce the negative consequences
(principally death, disease, crime, and suffering) of both drug use
and drug control policies themselves. Therapeutic sentencing improves
the effectiveness of drug courts by allowing for an expansion of drug
treatment alternatives, the expungement of records for non-repeat
offenders, and the creative use of probation and other alternatives to
incarceration. But every time we talk about drug policy, it inevitably
gets filtered into an absolutist and not particularly useful
discussion on legalization that, on both sides, is light on substance
and heavy on grandstanding.

So, here's one suggestion to break the gridlock: Early in his or her
term--and with great fanfare--the new president should announce a
significant federal investment in drug courts.

What do drug courts do? While they're not all the same, the idea is to
put participants through an intensive regimen of substance abuse
treatment, drug testing, and close supervision. Judges in these courts
wield two significant powers: the power to incarcerate those who fail
the regimen, and the power to expunge or erase records of minor
convictions, thus giving offenders the chance for a genuine fresh
start in life. And while I am aware that there are many proponents of
drug policy reform who oppose drug courts on the grounds that they
overemphasize the criminal justice system, major policy reform usually
happens in incremental steps, and elected officials are reluctant to
get too far ahead of their constituents on sensitive issues such as
this. A presidential commitment to the goals of drug courts could be
an important first step that could allow for further, more
treatment-minded reform down the line.

Why do I believe this? Because over the past decade, the public seems
to have accepted drug courts as a means of blending judicial
accountability and effective treatment.

Consider the dramatic growth of these courts in state judicial
systems, from a handful in 1989 to over 2,000 by 2007. According to
the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, every year over
100,000 addicts--whose cases would normally be processed through
juvenile, adult, or family courts--are now tried in drug courts.
That's good news. But then consider this: There are roughly 1.8
million people arrested each year for drug law violations--40 percent
of them just for marijuana possession. If there were a strategy, as
outlined by the president, that placed sustainable drug courts in all
counties of the United States, fewer addicts would populate our
prisons and more would be treated from a public health perspective.
Governors might embrace the idea because it would reduce the cost of
operating prisons, and congresspeople might be more willing to explore
larger policy changes if their constituents became comfortable
pursuing new strategies to respond to substance abuse.

Results matter--and a successful nationwide drug court program could
push skittish lawmakers to change an obviously failing drug policy.

Still, drug control policy has not been prominent in the presidential
campaign, so it is difficult to predict which candidate might bring
about real change in this area. In 2000, many thought that George W.
Bush might be an agent of change because he was a businessman--from a
cost/benefit standpoint, current drug control policies are hard to
justify--and because he was someone who noted that when he was young
and irresponsible, he was young and irresponsible. Bush seemed to
suggest that punitive corrective action need not be a permanent cross
for an individual to bear. And yet, as president, he took no action
that fundamentally altered the longstanding national drug control strategy.

Although Barack Obama doesn't speak about the drug war often, when he
does, he's by far the most forward-looking of the three remaining
candidates. In his fall semester convocation address at Howard
University, the Senator said the following:

I think it's time we took a hard look at the wisdom of locking up some
first time nonviolent drug users for decades.

Someone once said, and I quote: "Minimum sentences for first-time
users may not be the best way to occupy jail space, and/or heal people
from their disease." You know who said that? That was George W.
Bush--six years ago. And I don't say this very often, but I agree with
George W. Bush. The difference is that he hasn't done anything about

Of course, history suggests that Obama will not act on his promise of
reform if he wins in November. But we can hope. By urging reform of
national drug control policy--starting with a call for more
adjudication through drug courts--a President Obama will not be
signaling retreat in the War on Drugs. He will be announcing a more
effective way of achieving peace.

Kurt L. Schmoke is the Dean of Howard Law School and from 1988 to 1999
served as mayor of Baltimore.
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