What is the relation between drugs and crime and what should we do about it? These questions are raised by the recent National Institute of Justice finding that surprisingly large percentages of persons arrested for serious street crimes test positive for drugs. In New York 79% and in Los Angeles 69% of those arrested for burglary, larceny and assault were found to have ingested illicit drugs in the previous 48 hours.
The findings show a remarkable association between drugs and criminality but they do not tell us how to interpret the connection. Do street criminals commit crimes to get money to satisfy an addiction? Do others commit crimes because they are under the influence of a powerful drug? Or are drugs a recreational activity popular among people who commit street crimes? And does it much matter?
If drugs are regarded by street criminals as just another expensive commodity--like furs or leather jackets--then whatever crime-control policies we adopt for other criminals should apply equally to those who use drugs. But if street crimes are being commited largely to finance an addiction, or in reaction to drug effects, then lengthy prison terms make little practical or moral sense. Addicts will be only slightly deterred by the threat of punishment, if at all. Moreover, to the extent that free will is limited by addiction, addicts are less deserving of punishment.
Given the extraordinary relationship between drugs and crime shown, it is hard to believe that drug addiction does not play a major causal role in motivating criminality. A relationship of this magnitude can scarcely be accidental or prudently ignored. Thus, institute director James K. Stewart is right when he says, "If we are going to do something about the crime rate, we are going to have to confront the drug problem."
But what should we do? These remarkable findings suggest without doubt that we need to rethink our enforcement priorities. The institute's findings point to the limits of heightened law enforcement and imprisonment as our major social response to the drug/crime nexus. We have succeeded in capturing, convicting and incarcerating scores of offenders. Yet our present policies have evidently contributed less to crime prevention than to prison overcrowding.
Since 1967 California's prisons have been more notable for their historic population peaks than for preventing crime. In 1967 more than 23,000 felons were imprisoned. At last count, on Jan. 17, 1988, the California Department of Corrections counted 67,146 felons. Overcrowded jails and prisons are bulging with convicted felons whose probation and parole were revoked because of drug use.
Unfortunately, where drugs are involved even the most professional and successful law-enforcement initiatives can result in wholly unintentional and disturbing outcomes. Thus, following the conviction of three major drug dealers about two years ago Oakland experienced a sharp rise in drug-related shootings and homicides. So long as a lucrative market for drugs continues, newer and equally vicious dealers will arise to fight and kill for territory.
Experience suggests that instead of relying primarily on expanded law enforcement to combat the drug/crime connection, we should look to programs and research in three different directions. Clearly, we need to increase our commitment to drug rehabilitation. Although some drug criminals may not prove good prospects for drug rehabilitation--especially if they are coerced--surely, it makes no sense to deny treatment to those who volunteer for it.
Second, we need to support an experiment with drug education. It would be wonderful if "Just Say No" were to work as a demand reduction strategy across the board, from suburb to inner city. But in case it won't, we ought to invest in and test alternative strategies. The effectiveness of drug education depends on message, communicator, frequency, age and social position of the receiver. Market researchers test such factors all the time to sell consumer goods. We ought to invest even more in drug-education research and advertising to un-sell addictive products.
Third, police departments need to experiment with community-policing initiatives to cope with the street drug trafficking problem. Police departments need to reorder priorities and have officers far more involved with grass-roots communities than they now are. This means that police must take the initiative in organizing community-based crime prevention groups; re-orienting patrol activities to emphasize non-emergency service; increase accountability to local communities, and decentralize services, for example, by establishing neighborhood police houses.
Predictably, none of these initiatives will "solve" the crime problem and the drug/crime nexus. Experience dictates that when we think about crime prevention, we applaud reduction as success and recognize that solution is a long way off. The causes of crime have deep social and economic roots that preclude easy programmatic fixes. But the demand reduction and prevention measures suggested above will more likely enhance public safety than our present simplistic policies of punishment by the warehousing of prisoners.