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War on Drugs Takes a Toll on the L.A. Justice System

Limited resources could be better used elsewhere.

October 25, 2003|Brady Sullivan | Brady Sullivan is a deputy public defender in Los Angeles.

Some members of the Los Angeles City Council are supporting a tax increase to hire more police on the grounds that the city is "seriously underpoliced."

This is simply not true.

People who work in the Los Angeles criminal justice system are well aware that the central problem with the LAPD is not a shortage of police officers but a misallocation of personnel. Instead of fully policing the most violent, gang-infested parts of the city, a vast number of officers are toiling away in the futile "war on drugs."

As a deputy public defender in Los Angeles for the last 15 years, mostly spent in the central criminal courthouse, I have gained firsthand knowledge of the misguided priorities of the LAPD. I've witnessed the vast number of police personnel engaged in the failed prohibition against illegal drugs, the central feature of which is the so-called "buy-bust" operation. During these elaborate undercover sting operations, involving 15 to 25 LAPD officers, a pathetic street person -- who is usually a homeless, mentally ill, drug-addicted black or Latino parolee -- is approached by an undercover officer and offered an inflated price for a rock or two of cocaine.

After the target seizes the opportunity to make a quick profit to feed his drug habit and sells to the undercover officer, the other officers swoop in to complete the arrest. The arrestee then goes through a cycle of arrest, trial or plea, incarceration and parole, only to start the cycle again.

The costs to the public in this absurd scenario are not limited to the vast amount of police time spent making arrests and sitting around in court to testify. The public costs also include the expense of incarceration in county jail and state prison, as well as the significant costs to staff courtrooms with judges, lawyers, clerks, court reporters, interpreters and juries. A number of judges who handle felonies downtown say that these street-level drug cases take up about 75% of all court time.

Politicians who exploit the public's legitimate concern for public safety through the appearance of being "tough on crime" by calling for more police officers would better serve their constituents if they honestly admitted the resources wasted in the war on drugs.

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