Terrifying Picture of Baltimore

September 03, 1992

More than half of Baltimore's 60,715 black men between 18 and 35 are likely to be under criminal justice supervision on any given day. This is the terrifying conclusion of a report by an organization advocating alternatives to prisons.

"We couldn't believe the number in Baltimore. I sent our people back a second time and a third time, and they came back the same," said Herbert J. Hoelter, director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. Part of the reason the teams kept checking and rechecking was a furor in Washington not so long ago when the organization reported that 42 percent of young black men in the District of Columbia were in trouble with the law.

According to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, whose staff also did some checking, the Baltimore figures ring true. The mayor calls the situation "not just a local problem but a national tragedy."

About one-third are in trouble with the law because of drug offenses. This leads the report's authors to conclude that the Bush administration's war on drugs has been "racially biased and its casualties have been young, male and African-American."

Without a doubt, blacks seem to be taking a disproportionate rap for a drug epidemic where both the bankrollers and users are thought to be predominantly white. Instead of nabbing the real behind-the-scenes money men, protected by batteries of go-betweens, the small fry gets caught. While those small-time runners clog the court system, the drug epidemic continues unabated.

If the much-ballyhooed war on drugs is producing more noise than results, it is time to consider more realistic alternatives. Chief among them is decriminalization, first suggested by newly-elected Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in 1988.

"Decriminalization would take the profit out of drugs and greatly reduce, if not eliminate, the drug-related violence that is currently plaguing our streets. Decriminalization will not solve this country's drug abuse problem, but it could solve our most intractable crime problem," said Mr. Schmoke, a former prosecutor.

A probing article by Scott Shane in The Sunday Sun explored just how corrosive the monetary and psychological influence of drug dealing is among Baltimore juveniles. Indiscriminate gun violence has become commonplace in drug-infested areas. Particularly lethal are turf battles among gangs from New York that have taken over various Baltimore neighborhoods, turning quiet streets of row houses into night-time zones of terror.

Much of the violence in the inner cities takes place so that suburban drug users can get their fix. Yet no neighborhood is immune. It is for this reason that the nation needs a more workable anti-drug strategy. Otherwise, America will be engulfed by this drug-driven lawlessness.

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