ALAA Roots — An Unofficial Site

June 1, 1993

1993.06.01: Michael Letwin, A PLAN TO CURTAIL STREET CRIME AND TURF WARS (American Lawyer, June 1993)

The American Lawyer
American Lawyer
June 1993



While Stuart Taylor, Jr., accurately surveys the racism of the “war on drugs” [“How a Racist Drug War Swells Violent Crime,” April], he is wrong to casually reject the “[legalization] of cocaine and heroin.”

It is plain to many of us who work as public defenders that, to a greater degree than even during alcohol Prohibition, drug prohibition is the single most immediate cause of crime and violence in impoverished inner cities.

Dismal poverty, institutional racism, and resulting hopelessness have long resulted in high levels of drug and alcohol abuse in inner-city communities. However, because — unlike alcohol — drugs such as crack are illegal, many inner-city users commit street crime and sell drugs to support habits that cost as much as $100 a day. In addition, the artifi-cially inflated profit in illegal drugs, combined with near-nonexistent economic opportunity, draws young people into the low-level trade in which lucrative profits have turned entire inner-city neighborhoods into free-fire zones. Thus one study has shown that fully half of New York City’s 1988 homicides were drug-related, and three quarters of those resulted from competition for control of street-level drug traffic.

Our unrelieved caseloads amply demonstrate that the criminal justice system plays little, if any, deterrent role to either drug abuse, or to the related criminal violence that drug prohibition spawns. And as Judge Whitman Knapp of the federal court in the Southern District of New York has recently pointed out in refusing to handle drug cases, law enforcement’s record in targeting high-level dealers makes the Vietnam War look like a raging success.

At the same time, it is clear in our work that the drug war only compounds the problem of drug abuse with further victimization in the form of indiscriminate drug sweeps, frame-ups, abuse, and questionable shootings by police, arrests, imprisonment, and lifelong felony records. The billions of dollars poured into this ineffective and destructive war has the additional consequence of making it often impossible to find drug treatment slots for our clients.

Thus, while not a cure-all, decriminalization would provide the immediate benefit of dramatically curtailing street crime and turf wars, and of ameliorating the gross institutional racism of the war on drugs. Perhaps then we can fo-cus on the need for racial and economic justice which alone can address the problem of inner-city drug abuse.

Michael Letwin
The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys
New York City

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