War on drugs boomeranged, researcher says

September 15, 1992|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

Few studies have created more discussion and controversy than a recent report that 56 percent of black males 18 to 35 years old have been snagged in Baltimore's criminal justice system.

The director of the group behind that research, Herbert J. Hoelter, 42, lives in the Ten Hills neighborhood of West Baltimore. His group, based in Alexandria, Va., is the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA).

Before co-founding NCIA, Mr. Hoelter was an assistant to the Pennsylvania Commissioner on Children and Youth. His organization's clients include state, county and city institutions,

such as courts and parole boards, developing sentencing and alternative programs.

Q: Your report concludes that the high percentage of black men caught up in the criminal justice system results from a racial bias rooted in the federal government's war on drugs. Why that conclusion?

A: The so-called drug war is set up to bust the easiest catch -- people selling drugs on the street.

They're usually unsophisticated young men from poor, minority neighborhoods. They make easy targets for police.

You never hear about police setting up surveillance and drug stings in yuppie bars and fancy restaurants. Does anyone believe that cocaine and other drug deals don't go down in those places? But setting those up would be very complex.

The federal government's policy tells law enforcement [in effect], we'll give you the money, but you must show results. And so, the strategy is to go for the easier target.

The politicians' response is: "Look, your tax dollars are wisely spent. We're putting all these kids away selling drugs on the street."

Q: But shouldn't people who break the law be arrested?

A: Absolutely. The responsible thing to do is arrest them; intervene. The really violent criminals should go to jail -- the murderers and rapists.

But the majority aren't arrested for violent crimes.

For these people, though, the only options right now are the aspirin or the lobotomy.

You either tell them to go home and shake it off on their own. Or you give them probation, which means nothing but total disrespect for everybody. Or you give them prison, which, again, means total disrespect for everybody.

These have been the dominant choices in criminal justice for the last 10 years. That policy is morally and ethically horrendous, because it doesn't look at people as individuals with problems that lead them to commit crimes.

Q: Are you saying the federal war on drugs has boomeranged; that is, rather than solving a law-enforcement problem, it's creating one?

A: There's no question it's boomeranged. The only strategy being pursued is incarceration.

The first time you put someone in jail, you've put them in an environment which is going to exacerbate the root causes of why they are in trouble with the law in the first place.

They are going to undergo further abuse and isolation in the penal system. They are going to learn from the inmate population how to commit other crimes.

When they get out of jail, they won't have money. They'll have few or no job skills. Maybe no home.

They are easy prey for getting drawn right back into selling drugs on the street, or other crimes. The system almost forces people to stick with crime.

In the war on drugs, the federal government has spent $12 billion -- $11 billion of which has gone into more firepower and building more prisons. Yet, go into any community and ask people, "Are you safer than you were 10 years ago?"

The answer is almost always "no."

Q: You are saying, in effect, that incarceration is creating career criminals, particularly among young black men.

A: Yes. The incarceration strategy [of the past decade] is dehumanizing. It turns a blind eye to the very real heartache people are dealing with in economically disadvantaged, minority communities.

Just listen to the words the federal drug-war leaders use to describe the kids being arrested for selling drugs on the street. They use words like "vermin" and "evil plague."

They don't see these people even as humans.

Q: Some might say that sounds pretty political in this election year. Aren't you vulnerable to being written off as just a polemicist, wanting Republicans out of national office in favor of presumably more liberal Democrats?

A: If you're accused of being a liberal when you suggest decent changes in an indecent system, then I'll wear that badge.

This is not a problem that existed in 1981. Ten years later, in a country where the leadership has taken on a clear ideological tone, the strategy has failed.

There would be no issue to debate if crime was down and drugs were off the street. But that is not the result of the policy; if it were I'd be subject to those charges.

The bottom line is that the system we have now is not working.

We know for a fact that two out of three men who go to jail have a drug problem when they go in. And two out of three men in jail will go back to jail at some point after they've been released.

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