Pubdate: Sun, 18 Oct 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Danielle Allen
Note: The writer is a political theorist at Harvard University and a 
contributing columnist for The Post.


Why is it so hard for us to see how profoundly a $100 billion illegal 
market in anything would distort a society?

To argue for legalization of marijuana and decriminalization of other 
drugs does not, at first blush, appear to put one on the side of the 
angels, especially given the accelerating heroin epidemic.

But legalization and decriminalization are what we need if we want to 
make headway against mass incarceration, high homicide rates in urban 
black communities and poor educational outcomes in urban schools.

If we view drug use as a public health problem, not a crime, we can 
fight drugs without producing the other sorts of social damage we see 
all around us.

Americans from all racial groups pursue narcotic-related leisure 
activities, spending an estimated $100 billion a year on their 
illegal drugs, according to a report from the White House Office of 
National Drug Control Policy. In this current period of fairly active 
military engagement, the nation's defense budget is roughly $600 
billion. In other words, our culture of illegal drug use must be 
pretty important to amount to a full sixth of our budget for national defense.

Yet despite this evidence of far-reaching social acceptance of 
illegal drug use, we continue to lock up nonviolent offenders. 
Ceasing this hypocritical practice by releasing nonviolent offenders 
is morally urgent.

Yet this would be only a small step toward rectification of the 
problem of mass incarceration. As the Web site Five Thirty Eight 
recently reported, such a move would reduce our state and federal 
prison populations by only about 14 percent.

We would still be the world's leading imprisoner.

The further-reaching reason to legalize marijuana and decriminalize 
other drugs flows from how the war on drugs drives violent crime, 
which in turn pushes up incarceration and generates other negative 
social outcomes.

You just can't move $100 billion worth of illegal product without a 
lot of assault and homicide.

This should not be a hard point to see or make. Criminologists and 
law enforcement personnel alike acknowledge that the most common 
examples of "criminogenic trends" that generate increases in murder 
and other violent crimes are gang and drug-related homicides.

But there is also another, more subtle connection between the drug 
war and violence, pinpointed by economists Brendan O'Flaherty and 
Rajiv Sethi. As they argue, above-average homicide rates will result 
from low rates of successful investigation and prosecution of homicide cases.

If you live in an environment where you know that someone can shoot 
you with impunity, you are much more likely to be ready to shoot to 
kill at the first sign of danger.

When murder goes unpunished, it begets more murder, partly for 
purposes of retaliation, partly because people are emboldened by 
lawlessness, but also as a matter of preemption. Unpunished murder 
makes everyone (including police) triggerhappy. Such places operate 
according to the dictum that the best defense is a strong offense.

Major urban centers of the drug trade are just such environments, 
plagued by low clearance rates for homicide.

In Detroit, in the years approaching the city's bankruptcy, the 
homicide clearance rate verged on single digits.

In Chicago, in 2009, police cleared only 30 percent of homicide 
cases, many of them without charges.

In one Los Angeles Police Department bureau, clearance rates in the 
60s mask the low rate of cases ending in arrest and prosecution. And 
clearance rates are lowest when victims are black and brown, as Jill 
Leovy explains in her new book, "Ghettoside." In contrast, in the 
1960s, in the United States, the average clearance rate for homicide 
was above 90 percent, according to NPR.

Why have homicide clearance rates fallen so low in these cities? 
According to criminologist Charles Wellford, drug-related homicides 
are harder to investigate, possibly because they are more likely to 
be stranger-to-stranger incidents and possibly because the drug 
business generates witness-suppression systems.

Additionally, stop-and-frisk tactics have eroded trust in police and 
further diminished the willingness of witnesses to testify.

And, recently, justified anger over police violence has further 
reduced the capacity of the police to function well in investigating homicides.

Finally, an overloaded judicial system may well put prosecutors in a 
position where they wish to pursue only open-and-shut cases that will 
generate plea deals.

According to a retired police officer interviewed by NPR, Vernon 
Geberth, police nowadays have a higher bar to get over in trying to 
clear a case because prosecutors want only those easier cases.

And what is the No. 1 source of this prosecutorial overload? 
According to federal judicial caseload statistics, in U.S. district 
courts in 2013, 32 percent of defendant filings were for drug-related 
cases, making this the biggest category of filings.

State judicial systems, too, have been significantly strained for 
financial resources and personnel by drugrelated casework.

Add to this picture the fact that plenty of violent offenders in our 
nation's prisons started out as nonviolent drug offenders, and you 
have a complete picture of just how much the drug war itself has been 
a generator of violence.

The drug war is a perfect example of the breakdown of the rule of law 
and the knock-on effects of such a breakdown.

Our drug laws are fundamentally unenforceable, and this distorts the 
judicial system, including by producing prosecutorial overload, which 
is a driver of low homicide clearance rates, which beget a culture of 
increasing violence, which puts more fathers of young children behind 
bars or under the ground, makes it harder for children in poor, urban 
areas to walk to school safely, and forces on those children a choice 
between the culture of the schools, inside the rule of law, and the 
culture of the streets, outside the rule of law. Since Plato, we have 
known that the power of schools to develop the minds of the young 
depends on an alignment of the worlds inside and outside the school. 
The culture of violence in urban areas, begotten by the war on drugs 
and a reflection of the failure of the rule of law, is the opposite 
of a healthy context for learning.

Why is it so hard for us to see how profoundly a $100 billion illegal 
market in anything, even in popcorn or "My Little Pony" toys, would 
distort a society?

Can there be any other reason for our failure to see this than that 
black and brown people bear the brunt of these distortions? If we 
care for the safety and happiness of the whole of our society, as we 
must, then it is time to legalize marijuana, decriminalize other 
drugs and recast drug use as a public health problem, not a crime.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom