David Kennedy’s “High Point” drug enforcement strategy – now known generically as the Drug Market Intervention (DMI) – seems to have scored again, this time in Newport News, VA. The idea is to identify all the dealers in a flagrant market that is causing neighborhood problems, make cases against all of them, and then threaten them all simultaneously that if they don’t stop dealing you’re ready to put them in prison (while with the other hand offering them help if they want to turn their lives around). The program relies on the support of the neighborhood, including the families of the dealers. When the police ask in the right way, that support is usually forthcoming.
On one point The Economist gets the story badly wrong. The reporter asserts flatly that prison doesn’t work as a deterrent. But in fact DMI relies precisely on the threat of prison. (That makes it unlike the HOPE program for drug-using felons on probation or parole, which relies on much milder threats of a few days in jail.) What the two programs have in common is the preference for threats over actual punishments. A credible threat rarely needs to be carried out, making it far preferable from the viewpoint of the public and the offenders alike.
We now know how to have less crime, less drug abuse, and fewer people behind bars. Progress is indeed happening, but it’s happening at a maddeningly slow rate.