After 'The Wire'

The Baltimore Sun

If you're called for jury duty, let the lawyers and judges know up front that you're not going to send nonviolent drug offenders to jail.

That provocative piece of advice comes from the creators of my all-time favorite television show, The Wire, which ended its five-year run on HBO Sunday.

"If asked to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence presented," the writers of the show declare in a recent Time magazine essay.

The essay is signed by David Simon, a former Sun reporter who created the series; Ed Burns, a Baltimore cop-turned-teacher who became Mr. Simon's co-creator; William F. Zorzi Jr., another former Sun reporter (who also plays a Sun reporter named Bill Zorzi on the show) and best-selling crime novelists Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos and Richard Price.

"Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or intended violence are alleged, we will ... no longer tinker with the machinery of the drug war," they write. "No longer can we collaborate with a government that uses nonviolent drug offenses to fill prisons with its poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens."

Although I have some reservations, I've learned enough as an urban affairs journalist to know that they make a powerful and persuasive argument. The war on drugs too often has become a war against poor people.

That theme was driven home with bracing clarity and authenticity on The Wire, which is more than a cop show. It's really about the two Americas left behind to coexist uneasily in the social rubble that departing factory jobs left behind.

Simon and Co. say they were moved to write by the show's fans who became invested in the lives of characters such as Bubbles, the junkie struggling to get straight, and Dukie, the dropout outcast who slides into junkiedom. We few, say the writers, we captivated few who made up the series' loyal audience, flooded the writers with one question: What can we do?

Having talked in recent months with almost all of the essay's authors, I know how frustrating they have found that question to be. Kids get killed, addicted or jailed. Politicians get elected. Lawyers get rich. Jails get filled. The drug war goes on. Drug arrests soar without a noticeable decline in drugs.

In Baltimore, Simon and Co. note, arrests for drugs have soared during the last three decades while arrest rates for murders have dropped by half. In other words, serious crimes against lives and property are going unsolved in a system that encourages police to spend time snatching minor drug arrests off the nearest corner.

Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a former federal prosecutor, suggested that decriminalization would cause fewer problems than the drug war was causing. In that spirit, The Wire writers advocate what Mr. Simon has called a "paper bag" approach to minor offenders. In the real world of the streets, putting your beer can in a paper bag frees the cops to look the other way and go after more serious crooks instead of arresting you for illegally drinking in public.

With lawmakers unwilling or unable to repair the drug war's damage, Simon and Co. invite juries to look the other way by exercising their right to nullify a law they see as unjust or unwise.

Jury nullification dates back in English law to the Magna Carta. It refers to a rendering of a verdict by a trial jury that refutes the judge's instructions as to the law or its application in a particular case. In a historic 1735 trial in the colony of New York, journalist John Peter Zenger was acquitted of seditious libel against the royal governor.

If enough members of the public signal their disapproval of a law by refusing to enforce it, they might bring about its repeal. That's a happy thought, as long as it is not taken too far. As a rule, it still is better to pass laws in legislatures than in courtrooms.

It is also a good idea, before releasing people for nonviolent offenses, to check to see whether they have histories as violent offenders and tendencies to do it again. Many do.

Yet, there is much that we should do to help today's at-risk youths and small-time criminals avoid becoming big-time criminals. For example, we can support neighborhood programs, many of which are church-based, that do a good job of putting kids on the right road. After all, the one thing that is so unsettling about the wasted lives portrayed on The Wire is our knowledge that they're not all fiction.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears weekly in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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