Crime and drug policy in the new Administration

The material on the website doesn’t suggest that drugs and crime will be on the front burner. But there’s scope here for an Administration dedicated to helping the dispossessed and committed to making policy based on science and common sense rather than ideology.

Most political and media discourse about drug abuse and crime control is pure twaddle, or worse. So I wasn’t at all unhappy to find my two pet issues largely ignored in this year’s campaign, and I’m not especially distressed that the new Administration has had so little to say about them.

Still, at some point the silence becomes audible. The U.S. has twice the homicide rate and five times the incarceration rate of Canada or Western Europe. We keep 2.3 million people in cells, and criminal violence sent 1.8 million people to the emergency room last year. Crime shapes where people live and work. It perpetuates concentrated poverty. African-Americans are about six times as likely as others to be murdered, and to be incarcerated. Alcohol and tobacco are the two largest public-health problems as measured by morbidity and mortality; the illicit drug trade creates violence and enforcement against that trade accounts for more than a fifth of all incarceration, again with an especially heavy toll among young poor black men.

And yet you wouldn’t guess from the issues page either that crime or drug abuse was a major issue, or that there were any new ideas around about how to deal with them.

The issues list doesn’t include either “drugs” or crime.” There’s a “Crime and Law Enforcement” section under “Urban Policy;” almost all of that section could have been written a decade ago:

1. More cops on the street (a good idea, in my view).

2. “Ex-offender supports.” Reducing recidivism is a great idea. There’s very little evidence that service-oriented programs can do it. There’s excellent evidence that better supervision can do it. The discussion on the website is all about services; probation and parole might as well not exist.

3. Giving local law enforcement access to gun trace data (useful, but not likely to have a big impact on crime).

4. Some other gun-control stuff:

&#8212 Eliminating the “gun show loophole.” Actually, there ain’t no such animal. What this must mean is eliminating the private-sale exemption from Brady Act background checks. That might put a noticeable dent in gun violence.

&#8212 Restoring the assault weapons ban. If the old law is rewritten based on sensible technical criteria this probably makes sense, mostly as a precaution. Right now, guns that would be banned if the old law were in place account for only a tiny share of homicides, but there’s a legitimate worry about an arms race among the bad guys.

&#8212 Childproofing guns. This has roughly nothing to do with crime control; at best, it’s a minor consumer products safety measure, unless the idea is to reduce gun prevalence by making handguns more expensive.

5. Community-based (i.e., not law enforcement) strategies for youth violence reduction. This is probably useful but certainly incomplete; routine anti-gang enforcement isn’t very useful, but police can do a great deal to reduce the level of gunfire.

On the drug side, the pickings are even slimmer. There’s some stuff under “civil rights” about racial profiling and sentencing disparities, and a bow toward drug courts. Under “rural” there’s a promise to “Continue the fight to rid our communities of meth and offer support to help addicts heal.” No hint about how. Public health is mentioned under “health care,” but substance abuse isn’t mentioned.

The “foreign policy” section says “Obama and Biden will demand the Afghan government do more, including cracking down on corruption and the illicit opium trade,” which is certainly not going to do anything about our drug abuse problem and could well make it harder for the Karzai government to survive against the Taliban.

And that’s it. The discussion of violence against women doesn’t mention alcohol, for example. Yet the relationship between the price of alcohol and the rate of assault, including spousal assault, is well-documented in the literature. Doubling the tax on beer (from a dime to twenty cents a can) would reduce the assault rate by at least 5%, and maybe as much as 20%.

There’s no hint about the prospect of breaking up street drug markets, thus protecting the surrounding neighborhoods, without making large numbers of arrests. Nor about the evidence that tighter probation supervision can massively reduce drug abuse and recidivism among drug-involved offenders. Nor about the use of directly-communicated deterrent threats. A naive reader would not know that there had been great progress recently in our understanding of how to control crime without just locking up everyone in sight.

Again, I don’t take any of this too seriously. The Administration properly has lots of stuff on its mind other than my two specialties, and the absence of drug-war rah-rah-rah and “tough on crime” rhetoric is something to be grateful for. But drug abuse and crime control are areas in which there has been change and is great hope, natural targets for an Administration dedicated to the needs of the neglected and committed to making policy made on science and common sense rather than ideology.

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: