The High Point drug strategy

David Kennedy’s low-arrest drug market crackdown approach scores again,this time in Newport News.

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

3 thoughts on “The High Point drug strategy”

  1. Mark’s almost exactly right here (and completely right about The Economist’s error in what is otherwise a fine article). What DMI uses on the enforcement side is the threat of…something. Drug cases can go any number of ways when they reach disposition, from remand to a previous probation sentence, to new probation sentences, to short- and medium-term jail stays, to prison. What matters in practice is that that sanction, whatever it may be, is transparent, communicated ahead of time, and communicated in a setting of procedural justice and community support (for the offender and the sanction both). In practice the resulting impact is remarkable.

    Part of the reason people believe that prison is no deterrent is that offenders constantly tell them that. Part of what’s remarkable about DMI and similar frameworks is that the same people who say that – when it’s too late, and they’re cuffed and being tranported – are extremely averse to even small sanctions when they know about them ahead of time and know what they need to do to avoid them. (When cops and prosecutors tell me that street offenders don’t care about prison or even their own lives, I ask them if said offenders stop offending when the cops are in view, run when they’re about to be caught, throw away evidence while running, hire defense attornies when they are caught, flip on their friends, and look both way when they cross the street. The answer to all these questions is yes. The problem with normal criminal justice isn’t that offenders aren’t reasonably rational. It’s that the environment the justice “system” presents them with isn’t particularly rational.)

  2. All very well, and I have deeply drunk you guys’ Koolaid about the psychology of offenders and mightoffenders…but what I see crawling out from under a lot of rocks, especially in red blog comment threads, is people who want a class of people to fear and despise so they really need a proper assortment of firearms about the house, and antsy because they almost never get to actually shoot any of them, so they want to know they are in prison being punished a lot. If these predators (comfortably imagined as black drug dealer children of welfare cheats) are not committing crimes, there will simply not be enough punishing, and the amount of punishing needed in a world going to hell in a handbasket (especially if I’m afraid of losing my job, or that my teenagers are disrespecting me, or my wife is stepping out) is more, not less. If my lizard brain regards the status of black/latino young man as itself culpable…

    I believe there’s an affective dimension of opinions about crime that needs more sociology done upon it, “when brute force is sort of the point” type stuff. Arpaio’s positives are remarkably stable.

    1. Let’s grant that, Mike. Let’s also grant that, thank God, comment fields do not map neatly onto the rest of reality, and that the larger polity is possessed of considerably more common sense.

      That said, the one thing that the hard right and the hard left have in common when it comes to crime is an adamantine conviction that offenders cannot be taken seriously as human beings. On the right the stance is that they’re subhuman sociopaths. On the left it’s that they’re victims whose circumstances foreclose any possibility of choice or responsibility. Of the two, I’ve found the right far more open to reconsideration. I’ve got a non-academic book out now, “Don’t Shoot,” that traces the development of the work and perspective I’ve been part of developing. It says in no uncertain terms that both conservative and liberal pieties on crime are not only wrong but deeply destructive. It’s generated a steady stream of right-wing communications saying, I didn’t get it, I was wrong, I’d like to help. On the left, it’s generated…nothing. As the book says, the toughest cops have been saying for a generation, we can’t arrest our way out of this. I’ve yet to hear a social worker say, we can’t program out way out of this. Mark will tell you – I believe – that the harshest opposition to HOPE has not come from the law enforcement community but from advocates for treatment. And on and on.

      We’ve been properly mourning, and celebrating the life and character of, our friend Jim Wilson. All of those remembrances say, I/we disagreed with him about a lot of things, but his mind was always open, and he changed it when new facts so dictated. On this set of issues, I don’t find the deficit of that orientation distributed as we might like to think.

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