Treatment vs. incarceration: U.S. officials debate handling of drug offenses

By Ana Francisca Vega
El Economista, Mexico City
Friday, December 18, 2009; 2:03 PM

WASHINGTON -- He had agreed to give me a tour of the streets here on the condition that I not reveal his name. To do so could cause problems with his superiors and co-workers at the police department. I consented. No one, I had been told, knew more than he did about how drug dealers operate in the U.S. capital.

It was getting dark when we got into the vehicle and set off on our tour. "Turn at the corner," he said, "and you'll see." As if by magic, a group of people materialized before us. "Dealers," he said. "Heroin, but also cocaine and probably marijuana." That scene played out at least 30 times in the three hours we spent crisscrossing the streets.

"Now turn left on this street. . . . Oh! Look at him. They call him 'Bobo,' and he's a lucky man. He must have just gotten out of prison," he said with a mixture of disbelief and anger.

"Don't you find it frustrating to know that no sooner than are they arrested, most of them are right back on the streets doing exactly the same thing?" I asked.

The officer was silent for a few seconds, as if searching for the right answer. Then, "I'm not Superman," he replied. "They do their job and I do mine. . . . I've known some of them for so long that they respect me. They see me as an authority figure. I've watched a lot of them grow up.

"Look behind you," he said, as we watched the goings-on at one of the open-air drug markets. I turned my head and there, less than five minutes away, was the dome of the Capitol. There were other drug markets near the campus of Howard University Hospital and near Washington's recently built convention center.

A few days later, as I was interviewing Inspector Brian Bray, commanding officer of the D.C. police's Narcotics and Special Investigations Division, one of his officers entered the room. Visibly pleased, the two men shared impressions about the preceding night. "We confiscated eight weapons," Bray said. I repeated my earlier question to the undercover officer: Isn't it frustrating to know that the person you arrested yesterday will soon be released and, true to form, will return to the streets to commit a crime? His answer surprised me.

"You've got liberal judges, liberal juries that don't want to send people to jail," he said. "A lot of times it's a revolving door. They get ridiculously low sentences for hideous crimes."

"But isn't it a matter of the number of people arrested, rather than the ideology of the judges and juries? How many people were arrested in D.C. on drug charges last year?" I asked him.

"Around 10,000," he said, and, after thinking for a moment, added, "yes, I guess you could say that. We don't have enough space for that many people."

Bray's story plays out repeatedly across the United States, where more than 30 percent of those incarcerated are serving sentences for dealing, possessing or using drugs. For years, the authorities have viewed widespread incarceration as the solution to drug trafficking and consumption. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who recently proposed a criminal justice reform initiative, said the number of people incarcerated in the United States is 13 times higher than it was 25 years ago. The economic and social costs of incarceration -- with many inmates who have no record of violent crime -- are staggering. This situation might be about to change.

Ever since President Ronald Reagan declared the "war on drugs," U.S. policy has focused on combating supply. Most of the country's resources -- more than 60 percent -- have been allocated to strengthen law enforcement, drug interdiction, crop eradication and international cooperation programs such as the Merida Initiative in Mexico and Plan Colombia. The rest is used for the treatment of drug addicts.

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