We call ourselves the incarceration nation because the United States accounts for 5% of the world’s population yet we house 25% of the world’s prisoners. We must also be the intoxication nation because 80% of painkillers in the world are prescribed and consumed here.
Every nineteen minutes someone dies of a drug overdose. We’re losing this war on opioids because we’re fighting it like we did in the original War on Drugs, taking out the cornerboys and the runners instead of the real kingpins.
For the past thirty years, justice reform advocates have agreed that supply-side strategy has been ineffective. Both supply and demand stayed high so there’s no point to dedicating resources to plans that don’t work, even if it might have been the right thing to do.
With all the criticism leveled at the War on Drugs, it’s surprising how few people know why it doesn’t work. They don’t even realized that it isn’t being fought according to plan.
William Fine, an owner of the former New York department store Bonwit Teller, had a son suffering from opiate addiction. At a dinner party, he was very open with the then-Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, about his son’s problem and mentioned that Japan had very low rates of addiction. Rockefeller told him to go to the Land of the Rising Sun and find out why its addiction rates were setting.
Fine found that Japan recognized that the vein of vicarious liability courses through the head of any crime organization. The country’s plan to attack the supply side of drugs was successful because the kingpins in Japan served mandatory life sentences. No deals. Japan’s low level of addiction at the time was attributed to the fact that fewer and fewer people made the career choice of dealing drugs because the consequence of getting caught as a kingpin outweighed the profit to be derived from it. It was true deterrence in action.
Governor Rockefeller drafted his drug laws to imitate Japan’s penal code and the federal government copied them.
If the drug laws enacted in New York and the United States Congress wanted big dealers and suppliers to be held most responsible for any drug epidemic, not the corner boys or the users, then I live smack-dab in the evidence that this isn’t happening and probably never did.
The right way to understand the failed War on Drugs is to look at the way Kramer tried to cancel the mail in the Seinfeld episode where he’s getting too many catalogs. Kramer didn’t go to corner-boy Newman for a definitive end to the flow. He tried at the counter of the local post office – a mid-level dealer – to cancel his mail but it didn’t work. Eventually Kramer ends up face to face with the Postmaster General (even though the General captures him), the Kingpin of Canceled Stamps. Kramer had the source of all of the ‘evil’ right before him and…like our criminal justice system, he didn’t do shit and instead buckled, as low-level distributor Newman gets led away for punishment, cuffed and with a pail on his head. The message in that episode is that you can’t stop the mail; the mail has to be motivated to decide to stop itself. Substitute ‘drugs’ for ‘mail’ and you see why supply-side policy worked in Japan but not here. You have find the chokepoint. And attack that, not someone else.
Carly, the talker down the hall, isn’t the millionaire mastermind behind Waterbury’s drug trade like she claims, much less all of Connecticut, but someone else is. (Note to Carly: kingpins don’t splurge on rims like you did; they buy the whole luxury car). Kingpin’s probably not even suspected of any criminal activity, much less does he fear a life sentence for the dough he rakes in for peddling death through underlings. We punish and confine that guy’s minions rather than releasing them and following them to track back to the kingpins whom Japan didn’t fear and didn’t settle until they were caught. Carly’s no General in the war; she’s just a Newman.
But the Carly’s, the low-level street suppliers, end up being the victims the mandatory-minimums that were designed for their bosses. Prosecutors give them very little incentive to turn on an upper level suppliers: snitch and do some time or don’t snitch and do a little bit more time. With the way we’ve corrupted our war strategy, there’s little downside to being the CEO of an outfit that enables people to get high. Our country is happy to make less fortunate, less educated people take the rap for you. It’s not drugs that have intoxicated us, it’s inequality. We’re addicted to imbalances of power that have normalized these unjust and ineffective responses to a black market.
The War on Drugs failed in the United States because we let our country’s indelible inequity get in the way of the plan. Dealers walk while runners serve mandatory-minimum sentences. We’re too loyal to the American tradition of letting the powerful off the hook while making the 99% pay for their crimes. If attacking the supply side doesn’t work, then it’s because the United States hasn’t looked high enough on the supply chain. You have to take out the Generals, not the Newmans, to win a war.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM MAY 29 – JUNE 4, 2017
Three California jail guards were found guilty of murder in a detainee death. I haven’t been able to confirm that this is the first murder conviction for the death of an inmate but it looks like it might be. Think about that: of all the inmates who die at the hands of prison staff, the first murder conviction happened in 2017. It’s hopeful and hope-dashing at once.
The New Yorker ran a piece that showed the ravages of the opioid epidemic in West Virginia that’s a worthy read. It also bears noting that West Virginia is a deep-red state and over performed for Trump in the 2016 election. The Feds have jurisdiction over every single drug crime (that’s the aforementioned ‘War on Drugs’) so all the addicted Trumpers have a greater chance of arrest and prosecution with the person they elected to run the country. And if they get saddled with a felony conviction, they won’t be able to vote for him or any Republican. Trump’s policies are a war on his base.
The Bureau of Prisons’ educational programming took a hit from an investigation by The Marshall Project which found that they’re teaching more crocheting than critical thinking skills.