The instigator

January 31, 1991

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is proving to be a world-class debater, or at the very least a world-class instigator of debates. In 1988, he touched off a spirited national discussion on whether drugs should be decriminalized, arguing that traditional law-enforcement models of the problem simply didn't work. This week the mayor tweaked another sacred cow by suggesting that "advanced scientific knowledge," including brain-altering drugs, might be a better alternative for punishing criminals than prison.

Yet it probably would be wrong to dismiss such radical notions as mere election-year grandstanding -- even though this is an election year. After all, legalizing drugs and, say, rendering rapists impotent through chemical injections are hardly ideas with which to win political popularity contests. Many supporters were outraged by Schmoke's forays into drug policy; no doubt many voters will find his ideas about alternative punishment equally repugnant. Cynics undoubtedly will argue that, given his administration's lackluster record with regard to the day-to-day operation of the City Jail, Schmoke is in no position to claim he is on top of the problem.

Yet one could argue equally plausibly that precisely because Schmoke has been a prosecutor and now is responsible for the jail, he is uniquely qualified to judge what works and what doesn't. In fact, Schmoke's argument for alternative punishment is remarkably consistent with his stand on drug decriminalization: Society simply cannot afford to keep building massive prisons as a control mechanism in the absence of any evidence that the policy has been successful either in deterring crime or in altering the behavior of career criminals.

This is not a theoretical argument. A recent study found that the U.S. now leads the world in the proportion of its population it locks up -- ahead of both the Soviet Union and South Africa. That statistic ought to provoke thought. If the mayor's instigation helps the process along, more power to him.

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