Pubdate: Fri, 11 Jun 1999
Source: Wall Street Journal (NY)
Copyright: 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Joseph D. McNamara
Note: Mr. McNamara, former police chief of San Jose, Calif., is a research
fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.


Your editorial in support of the Rockefeller Drug Laws (May 24) correctly
states that the present decrease in crime is attributable to a number of
causes, including demographics and a decline in the popularity of crack
cocaine. But New York's drug problems didn't lessen after the Rockefeller
laws, and your conclusion that the Draconian penalties for low level drug
use and selling reduce crime by forcing addicts into treatment is unproven.
Crime in New York soared in the years subsequent to passage of the
Rockefeller laws. On the other hand, nationally, crime has declined
significantly during the past seven years, coinciding with a booming
economy and low unemployment.

During the 1980s, before the national decline in crime, I was police chief
of San Jose, which became the safest large city in America due largely to
the technology industry. By providing prosperity and jobs, it had greater
social impact than the actions of the police and criminal justice system.

In 1973, I was a deputy inspector in the New York Police Department when
the department opposed passage of the Rockefeller laws on the ground that
Draconian penalties for drug sellers would cause dealers to recruit
juveniles into the trade. Unfortunately, we were quite correct. In New York
and elsewhere, harsh mandatory sentences for minor drug sales ultimately
cause legions of teenagers to be lured into careers of drug use and drug
selling, turning inner-city neighborhoods into killing grounds.

Over the years, millions have been locked up for long periods, often under
barbaric conditions, for minor drug offenses. During Prohibition, cops
rarely arrested the users of alcohol. Neither the drinkers nor bootleggers
got long sentences. But the vast profits flowing from the illegality of
alcohol did turn young hoodlums like Al Capone and Buggsy Siegal into
powerful crime bosses who spread corruption, violence and disrespect for
law, just as America's war on drugs has led to a $400 billion world-wide
black market.

In 1936, August Vollmer, the leading expert on American policing, spoke on
drugs: "Repression has driven this vice underground and produced the
narcotic smugglers and supply agents who have grown wealthy. . . . Drug
addiction is not a police problem; it never has and never can be solved by
policemen. It is first and last a medical problem. . . ."

We have paid a heavy price in wasted lives and money for not listening to
August Vollmer 63 years ago.

Joseph D. McNamara
Stanford, Calif.

(Mr. McNamara, former police chief of San Jose, Calif., is a research
fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.) 

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