Gov. Martin O'Malley has recently made the case for beefing up law enforcement to battle this year's rise in crime, including in an op-ed in The Sun. "So long as levels of enforcement continue to decline," he argued, "shootings and homicides will continue to go up."
This argument overlooks the way an emphasis on enforcement prevents this city from tackling violent crime. In fact, over-enforcement has the opposite effect and renders crime more pernicious in the communities that are most affected. To solve our problems with violent crime, we need to first repeal our drug policies.
By focusing on enforcement, we inevitably force police to measure success through arrest statistics. Under the current systems, it will always be easier to arrest someone for drug possession than it is to find someone in-house, on-demand treatment. In 2010, 47,633 people were arrested in Maryland on drug charges, of which 56 percent were related to possession of marijuana. This amounts to more than five times the number of people arrested in connection with violent crimes.
Baltimore, as David Simon has described it, is "the point of the spear when it comes to the drug war." While rates of incarceration remained roughly constant through much of American history, things began to change with tougher drug laws in the 1970s. In 1970, there were fewer than 400,000 people jailed in the U.S. Now, there are more than 2.2 million. Today, America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
As the creator and faculty supervisor of the JustAdvice law clinic, a product of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in conjunction with the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service and other legal service providers, I see the consequences of the war on drugs on a daily basis. A large portion of our clients come to us for help with their criminal records. Many of them have drug convictions that cannot be expunged. They often cannot obtain public benefits, employment and housing because of their records.
In the communities most affected by the war on drugs, the drug trade serves as the sole bread winner. In Baltimore City, over 95 percent of incarcerated juveniles are minorities. Is it any surprise that half of young African American men in this city are unemployed? When we direct our energy toward increasing enforcement, we condemn whole communities to subsist outside formal economic channels — where criminal records are not a barrier to employment.
These policies disproportionately affect African Americans and minorities, and they only serve to marginalize already underprivileged communities. Despite an equal rate of drug use among racial groups nationwide, African Americans account for 51 percent of people incarcerated on drug charges. Here in Maryland, even after the courts began monitoring the Maryland State Police for racial profiling policies, enforcement statistics have remained skewed. In 2007, the Baltimore City Police Department was forced to settle after similar allegations of racial profiling.
Ultimately, these policies undermine our ability to address violent crime in three important ways. First, our police departments lose the trust of the city they serve. Police work depends upon a constructive and collaborative relationship with the city's residents. Without trust, the police lose their most important source of information.
Second, by focusing resources on drug possession and misdemeanors, fewer resources are available for the more intensive work required to arrest those responsible for violent crimes. Zero tolerance emphasizes quantity of arrests over quality.
Lastly, as the city becomes weary of racial targeting and over-charging, it loses faith in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors routinely drop cases where arrests were made with no probable cause. We have seen judges forced to dismiss cases because of the strain on their dockets, and we have seen nullification because jurors simply no longer believe the evidence was the result of good police work.
The only way to sensibly tackle crime in this city is to get real about our drug policies. No society has ever fully rid itself of drugs, nor will we. But, if we eliminate the prohibition on drugs we can abate much of the social and personal damage currently associated with its trade.
Drugs should be legalized and regulated to keep the trade out of the hands of criminal gangs who profit while enforcing monopolies through violence. By taking drug issues out of the criminal justice system, we can free our police to do the real work necessary to make our streets safer.
Leigh Maddox is a retired state police captain and a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of police, judges, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs. Her email is email@example.com.