Cracking Down

Dixon's "The House that Crack Built" invites reflections on at least three sets of questions. First, is drug abuse and drug-related crime more or less common today than it was in the 1980s? Second, what is known about the efficacy of drug treatment programs in reducing substance abuse and crime? Third, what help can enthnographic studies be in understanding and shaping the next generation of drug policies? Briefly, let me sketch answers to each of these questions.

Most analysts agree that the number of Americans who use drugs is lower today than it was in the early- to mid-1980s. They also concur that there has been a small but significant decline in the number of drug abusers--persons whose frequent or reckless use of drugs results in serious problems for themselves or others (child or spouse abuse, job loss, physical or mental illness).

Some analysts, however, believe that the inner-city poor are exceptions to the trend. Over the last decade, drug abuse has become concentrated among young, inner-city African-American males. So has the problem of drug-related crime, especially violent crime.

The link between drug abuse and crime is a bit more complex than is commonly supposed. Research has shown what police and corrections officials have long suspected, namely, that drug abuse acts as a "multiplier" of crime. While criminality normally occurs prior to the onset of drug abuse, the onset of drug abuse generally results in higher levels of criminal activity.

But there are some silver linings. A few years ago in The American Prospect("Getting Prisons Straight," Fall 1990), I summarized the findings of a new generation of criminal rehabilitation studies. Since then, the news has gotten even better, especially with respect to drug treatment programs for offenders. Certain types of corrections-based programs for drug-abusing offenders cut recidivism. In general, the successful programs provide intensive supervision, take place close to the offender's release-from-custody date, and offer meaningful aftercare. Over 93 percent of prisoners have two or more felony convictions, have committed violent crimes, or both. But prison-based drug treatment has been shown to be effective even for violent, repeat, and violent repeat offenders.

The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has now developed a state-of-the-art drug treatment program. Many state prison systems have begun to follow the federal system's lead. Most states, however, have yet to proceed beyond superficial drug "education" or "counseling" efforts. And most local jail systems offer little if anything in the way of drug treatment.

In a recent Brookings Institution study, I estimated that to provide BOP-quality drug treatment to every prisoner who needed it would cost roughly $250 million a year. The social benefits in reduced recidivism alone would more than justify a federal commitment of that size.

It is a mistake, however, to suppose that expanding drug treatment programs would render strict anti-drug law enforcement efforts (arrests, prosecutions, incarcerations) unnecessary or obsolete. Contrary to what most mainstream critics of the "war on drugs" now argue, we need both more "demand-reduction" programs and more anti-drug law enforcement efforts.

In particular, we need to increase by at least 100,000 the number of police on foot patrol in inner-city neighborhoods. Most people are already familiar with so-called community policing. There's a great deal of research to show that good things happen when police get out of their cars, onto the streets, and into regular contact with citizens in the community. The community's fear of crime abates. Officer morale strengthens. Police-community relations improve. There is even some evidence that predatory street crime decreases.

But we have to stop kidding ourselves about the bottom line of community policing. Cops are not and ought not to be mere community kibitzers with badges. Even cops who follow the precepts of community policing are ultimately there to investigate and arrest people who hit, rape, rob, burglarize, extort, deal drugs, or murder. As every survey shows, the aspiring, law-abiding citizens who are trapped in crime-ridden inner-city neighborhoods want cops to apprehend drug punks and street gangsters, courts to convict them, and corrections officials to keep them behind bars for all or most of their sentences.

Despite mandatory sentencing laws, that is simply not happening. There is arguably a civil rights justification for a full-scale federal commitment to making inner-city streets livable. But civil rights justification or not, there is no practical substitute for such a commitment.

The closer one gets to the people involved in the inner-city drug-and-crime tragedy, the more apparent the need for such action becomes. While by no means a serious attempt at ethnography, and while my own experiences in talking to inmates in scores of prisons and jails all across the country makes me wonder whether the detainees at Ohio's Clark County Jail weren't just having a good time bulling the English professor, Dixon's article has the virtue of attempting to let those caught up in the inner-city drug trade speak for and about themselves.

There are now literally hundreds of systematic, and ostensibly scientific, studies of drug abuse and drug-related crime. But statistical analyses are of little value when they are based on false (dare I say ivory tower) notions of what variables are important, how the variables relate to one another, and how best to measure them.

Of course, there is no reason why expert ethnography and able statistical analysis can't go hand in hand. Ainsley Hamid, an anthropologist at John Jay College, has done field work in Harlem and other areas that reveals patterns of drug abuse and drug-related crime that should shake one's confidence in the conventional wisdom.

For example, in a recent Urban Institute study Hamid reports that "crack users tend to be clustered in the 30-and-above age range," and that "crack consumption has invaded the middle classes of the inner-city. Those arrested recently in New York for alleged use include a high school principal, school teachers, police officers, corrections officers, managerial staff in both public and private corporations, and other mature professionals or seasoned workers. Youths, on the other hand, are now involved with crack mainly as distributors."

Hamid's work is also a useful corrective to the false impression left by Dixon's article, namely, that the inner-city drug culture is both a crack culture and a culture of poverty. For example, among Hamid's many detailed portraits or crack users is "William," an inner-city middle-class African-American "who distances himself from the 'freakhouse,' 'crackheads,' and crack, preferring to smoke freebase in a smaller company of equals." Hamid's work also dispels the belief that crack use is still the biggest drug problem. Heroin use has been making a comeback in many places. PCP, inhalants, and other drugs that were hardly mentioned a decade ago are now popping up in many areas, as is the phenomenon of multiple drug abuse.

While the descriptive drama of Kent Dixon's article is welcome, we'd be better off paying attention to more analytical and prescriptive approaches to understanding drug-and-crime subcultures.

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