As some of you may know, I’ve become an almost obsessive critic of America’s raging failure of a drug war, which I consider perhaps our most dire national problem.
Take a look at the three charts below to see why I think the way I do.
[tabs slidertype=”left tabs” fx=”slide” auto=”yes”][tabcontainer] [tabtext]Homicides per 1000 –
1900-1995[/tabtext] [tabtext]Expenditures for
Enforcement[/tabtext] [tabtext]Incarceration Rates[/tabtext] [/tabcontainer] [tabcontent] [tab][/tab] [tab][/tab] [tab][/tab] [/tabcontent] [/tabs]
The specific data points of these charts are easy to nitpick because of the complications of history and reporting conventions. (Indeed, prior to World War I, the U.S. was much more a collection of independent states than a single nation, subdivided into different states. But that’s also a different article.)
What I care about here are the trend lines, and you won’t find any charts that show anything different out there in the ether. First and foremost, look at the homicide rate chart, which provides the statistic most easily reproduced with precision. You’ll note that the U.S. homicide rate in the first 75 years of the 20th century peaked just short of 10 per 100,000 people in about 1934. In one of the most startling facts that generally no one knows, the murder rate for many of Florida’s cities and towns during this period of time hit 60 or 70. That’s literally off the chart — way off the chart. In 1926, Jacksonville and Tampa were America’s two most deadly cities — worse than Al Capone’s Chicago. Even a smaller town like Palatka, where I grew up and which I’ve been studying for a book, topped 70 in 1926. Detroit, today, leads the nation with a murder rate in the 30s. And we think of it as a bit of a Mad Max, post apocalyptic nightmare. A 70 murder rate in Polk County, which has about 550,000 residents today, would translate into more than 350 murders in a given year. Let that sink in.
How did we get from a Florida that shared many of the pathologies suffered by cartel-plagued Mexico today to Grady Judd’s joyful announcement last week that crime has reached its lowest level in mostly unincorporated Polk in 39 years?
As an aside, the recent story about the “historic” drop in Polk crime included this passage:
Judd said the Sheriff’s Office began Uniform Crime Reporting in 1971 and the numbers from 2010 are the lowest ever reported. In sheriff’s territory, homicides were down from 16 to 12 and total violent crimes were down 13 percent.
Uh, sheriff, last time I checked, a large chunk of my property tax bill from the heart of urban Lakeland — probably the largest single chunk — funds you and your hardworking deputies, for whom I have great respect. However, if you have no responsibility for Lakeland, I would just assume you return that money to me. And really, why are all those deputies I see on Lakeland’s streets driving through an area for which they have no jurisdiction or statistical accountability? Next time one of them stops me for a speeding ticket, do I get to tell them, “Hey, Grady Judd says this isn’t your area?” Beware the lure of selective jurisdiction/responsibility in evaluating success.
Anyway, back to the question at hand: What caused the spike in violence in America in the early part of the 20th century, which was particularly severe in Florida, and what on earth happened circa 1934 that caused it to drop off a cliff? Virtually all cops profess a love of data these days. If you were such a number-loving police officer, and a neighborhood was spitting out data this stark into your crime analysis computers, wouldn’t you adjust your deployment in ways the data suggested? If you were a data-loving police officer, who likes to alert the press to “historic” crime trends, wouldn’t you ask yourself those questions and publicize them? The answers, of course, are yes and no. And the strangely differing answers represent the blind spot for our modern police officers. They fancy themselves hard-nosed, data-driven, cold-blooded assessors of human nature, but when that human nature screams in their face about how economic forces trump “moral” ones they shrug their shoulders and say, gosh, there’s nothing we can do short of putting everyone in ever more expensive mass incarceration programs.
I recently witnessed this cognitive dissonance firsthand at a Lakeland Kiwanis meeting, when the Lakeland Police Department’s top gang suppression officer, whose name I can’t remember, showed up to give us one of those “Little-bitty-Lakeland-really-has-big-city-gang problem-that-will-shock-you, and-even-white-kids-do-it-too” scare talks.
Never mind that Lakeland hasn’t been a little bitty city since the Eisenhower administration, or that anyone who is shocked by what human beings of all ages can do and say hasn’t much paid attention to life, or that the actual numbers of certified “gang members” were surprisingly small. What made this presentation slightly different is that the officer included a power point slide that actually said, explicitly, that the illegal drug trade drives gangs. And he put a number on the size of that trade — $80 billion per year in the U.S. And, I thought, great, now we’re about to get somewhere. Alas, he moved quickly on to the ever constant battle for souls of kids and good versus evil and all of that. He ended, more or less, with a note of hopelessness: all these lewd rapping kids are lost, lost, I tell you. We need to love them more – or put them prison forever. Really, that was the message.
Here’s an idea: Rather than engage in indulgent hopelessness and romantic fatalism, let’s try to learn from our great grandparents and how they fixed much greater crime problems without putting the entire country in prison, without turning neighborhoods into war zones patrolled by counterinsurgency forces, and without busting down door after door at 4:30 in the morning.
It starts with the proper definition, in terms political conservatives ought to embrace, of what that $80 billion illegal drug industry actually represents: an $80 billion welfare program, doled out in cash and administered through violence, for unskilled young men of all races. When you violate the terms of that program, you suffer injury, die, or go to prison.
David Simon, the creator of the “The Wire” uses a slightly different formulation. He calls the illegal drug industry the only factory still hiring in many neighborhoods. That’s just as valid and makes the same point.
In any event, it amazes me to my core that so many so-called conservatives will scream to the mountaintops about allowing poor mothers to have access to reasonable health care through Medicaid or nutrition through food stamps but have nary a peep about continuing to pay more than $40 billion in taxes each year for the drug war that only serves to provide an $80 billion marketplace. And frankly, these numbers are hard to quantify. I think they’re both probably low. On the other hand, liberals are as much a problem as conservatives on drug legalization. So this is one that rather defies conventional left and right.
What’s deeply frustrating is that we’ve done this before. We’ve made this mistake before as a country. And we fixed it by explicitly deciding to spend less on enforcement, by explicitly deciding not to create and sustain a ready-made market for the Al Capones of the world. There was a time in this country when we could fix a mistake. There’s no reason we can’t do it again. But we need police officers to help us.
And that brings us back to our charts.
Strict federal prohibition, as defined by the 18th amendment and the subsequent Volstead Act lasted from 1920 to late 1933, the year of the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt. But the temperance movement, characterized by state and community-level prohibition, started well before 1920. My home town, Palatka, for instance, voted to go dry in 1907. There was a legal war on whiskey afoot in Florida in elsewhere for the entire first two decades of the 20th century. And look at what happened.
What you don’t see in that graph is the rise during that time of the revival Ku Klux Klan, which is one of the nice bonuses prohibition provided us. In Florida, particularly, the Klan evolved into a prohibition enforcement organization, providing shock troops — who themselves were routinely drunk — for vice suppression. Vice suppression always tends to find its way to working class neighborhoods, which in turn tend to be filled with racial and cultural minorities. During prohibition, blacks and Catholics bore the brunt. In Putnam County alone, there were two murders and up top 8o abductions and floggings carried out by Klansmen in 1926.
In justifying the violence and denouncing Klan critics, a sitting Putnam county commissioner said:
There is no need to dodge the issue. Lawlessness, bootlegging, and dirty politics are at the bottom of all this up-stir. The bootleggers have been hard pressed in the last several months, and it is only natural that they would try to retaliate.
You could almost hear his equivalent today claiming opponents of the Klan were “soft on crime.” After all, it was a war out there between good and evil, a battle for the soul of the community — or something.
Anyway, by the early 1930s, most of the nation recognized prohibition as a colossal failure. It was repealed by the 21st Amendment to the Constitution in December 1933. And look at what happened. Crime and enforcement expense plummeted — and kept plummeting for nearly 30 years, until the early 60s.
And what happened in the early 60s? The rise of a new illegal drug marketplace. Suddenly, there was lots of money to be made again off of illegal intoxicants. In 1973, New York passed the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, and America’s prison industrial complex was born. Then came the crack age in the 80s and the concept of the neighborhood as occupation zone.
A combination of things, including much better, data-driven policing techniques, the burning out of the crack epidemic, and, possibly, longer prison sentences helped ratchet crime back a bit after about 1995. But crucially, we’ve never gotten to where we were when we weren’t fighting a drug war of some sort. And the cost — in dollars, shattered lives, and community-police relations — of this modest, uneven, reduction in crime in recent years is just enormous.
Today’s elite drug crime units, busting down doors and swarming the streets of sketchy neighborhoods to suppress the drug trade, perform exactly the same function the Ku Klux Klan fancied itself performing in 1926. They don’t think of themselves as doing that. And they act with warrants and uniforms and far better supervision than hooded Klansmen. But the effect and function is largely the same — with the added addition of much more time in prison.
There’s been much talk recently about the terrible spate of police killings. If that’s not an indication of the state of relations between police and elements of the wider community, I don’t know what is. No human being, whether they deserve it or not, will react well to the constant armed and authoritarian presence of someone who probably doesn’t look like them in the spaces where they live. See Iraq. No one likes to be watched and monitored. And how many sons have grown up without fathers because their fathers took the money they saw around them. Why don’t we focus on taking away the money, not the fathers. That’s what we did in 1933, and countless bootleggers found themselves out of an illegal job and out of legal jeopardy. They were forced to live more mundane lives of work. And they had many fewer occasions to kill. Many – if not most — went on to build successful legitimate businesses and families.
We have so many problems in this country today that require us to spend more money or suffer the consequences. This problem — the expense, death, and social destruction of the drug war — is the only one we can begin to solve by spending less and actually shrinking government.
The St. Pete Times a few weeks back wrote a feature story about Sheriff Judd. The reporter called me for background, and I talked to him for a while. The point I wanted to get across to him concerned the sheriff’s sophistication. But it seems not to have sunk in, or else I didn’t make it well enough.
The story was fine as it went — mostly a colorful rendering of Juddism. Here’s the key quote, from Judd’s son, no less:
“I think it has to do with honestly just the strong belief of what’s right and what’s wrong,” said Graham Judd, 30, the younger of his two boys. “He’s been quoted as saying the only time there’s a gray area is when people try to justify their wrong actions.”
That’s balderdash. Grady Judd has a deep understanding of gray areas. I say that as a compliment. Pay attention to how he varies his language and approach depending on who he’s talking to. You can’t police a big, multi-racial county with an almost comically high public profile without making any potent political enemies — pornographers don’t count — unless you have a certain degree of sophistication. This is not Joe Arpaio, the disgraceful Arizona sheriff. Judd knows which battles to pick publicly and which to let be.
Most importantly, I think he runs a competent, smart agency. It’s on-the-ground work is solid.
Also, Sheriff Judd learns. Years ago, as undersheriff in charge of the agency’s public face, I remember how reluctant Judd and his detectives were to tell us in the media about Lindsay Shamrock, the 15-year-old Mulberry girl who had alighted to Greece to meet with a married 33-year-old German she met over the internet. She was gone for four months, I think, before they finally broke down and filled us in. Our story made her disappearance a huge story in Greece. And she was back home in a week. [By the way, Lindsay, if you’re out there, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you ever want to tell the full story.] I think that marked the day that Grady Judd fully grasped the power of media and how easily he could control it. Sophistication. It also, more or less, marked the beginning of his crusade against Internet perviness and chatrooms/social media access to children.
I know that Grady Judd can look at the three prohibition graphs I’ve cited here and draw some logical conclusions. He loves data, remember. I can’t tell you how many times I heard him give presentations on the sheriff’s computerized, statistically driven policing models. So sheriff, what are these stats saying? For now, I know what he’ll say: I just enforce the law; I don’t make it. To which I’ll say, hoooey. The sheriff is never hesitant to weigh in on political questions of law enforcement if it suits him.
Consider this from the crime decline story I mentioned above:
Judd said he thinks the crime rate has dipped because when people do crime and get caught, they actually do time instead of a small fraction of it.
He said he is concerned about “so-called prison reform” in which prisoners who need to stay incarcerated are released, only to prey on hard-working people and their property.
To begin to correct the mistake of our drug war, to begin to ease tensions between police and the policed, to begin to better preserve families, to begin to spend less on incarcerating people, to further improve race relations, we need credible police officers to speak up about the futility and harm of the drug war. Grady Judd is just perfect for this role. No one doubts his hard-ass bonafides. And I don’t doubt for a second that he’s deeply aware of the futility of endlessly violent and destructive suppression.
I think he knows that the illegal cash economy of drugs is a far worse problem than the drugs themselves. It filters down into theft, robbery, killing. Take away that cash, and you start to take away motivation. There’s not much investment return in robbing people with debit cards and direct deposit.
Grady Judd is already a famous sheriff; he could become an historic one. What if his words could help bring about the type of reduction in crime and social upheaval we saw between 1934 and 1964? I hope he’ll stop going after nasty novelties like that Colorado fool and actually try to change the world.
1) It’s time to treat marijuana like alcohol. Tomorrow. Allow people to grow for personal use. Allow agribusiness or pharma to produce it — with certain potency standards — for sale in liquor stores or other specially designated shops. Allow it be used in the same ways and spaces as alcohol.
It’s not enough to decriminalize it. We must create an actual market that makes cartels and grow houses irrelevant. I heard someone say once, “Drug gangs don’t plant grapes.” Yep. That’s right. For all its murderous violence and ruthless impunity, the Klan failed miserably to win the war bootleggers. It took Bacardi and Anheuser Busch and Robert Mondavi to do the job. Big agribusiness can win the war on drug cartels. It certainly has a better shot at winning it than the DEA.
Marijuana profits form a very large portion of the Mexican cartels financial structure — up to 60 percent in some estimates. Let’s take that blood money away from them. Also, Judd himself once told me – five or so years ago — that most of Polk’s meth trade comes from Mexico, piggybacking on the existing marijuana networks and routes. Wiping out half their profits — almost overnight — and disrupting their networks organically would strike a greater blow for drug enforcement than anything in my lifetime.
2) Study the best approach for going after the cocaine market, with serious consideration given to selling it at pharmacies. Decriminalize possession. Ditto for meth. And assess the effects of marijuana market creation.
3) Focus policing of neighborhoods on public behavior in public spaces. Legalizing drugs is not the same as legalizing robbery or fighting or disorderly conduct.
4) Review prison sentences carefully, but do not just indiscriminately release people. Unfortunately, our prisons have become places where borderline guys tend to become hardened criminals. Stopping that process from happening is hugely important to the future of the country. But we can’t pretend the process hasn’t been ongoing for a long time and doesn’t present big potential risks for the neighborhoods that take in these men.
There you have it. My fantasy Grady Judd press conference. I am aware it is unlikely to ever happen. But you never know. The sheriff has a sense of history. He could make it here.
And those of you who still want to couch this economic issue as a moral one, one where the “only time there’s a gray area is when people try to justify their wrong actions,” try to answer this question:
Why aren’t you out there pushing for alcohol prohibition again?
I know absolutely no one who considers marijuana a more dangerous substance than alcohol. Pornography harms many fewer lives than alcohol abuse. It certainly kills fewer people. All these things you’re willing to ban and spend massive resources fighting are less harmful than alcohol. The reason you’re not willing to fight to ban again it is because people like to drink in massive numbers. And you know — from historical experience and the current experience of minors — that they will continue to drink even when it’s illegal. You’ve decided, implicitly, this is a war not worth fighting. That’s a good and noble judgement. We’re better off for it.
Recognizing wars that aren’t worth fighting is one of the most moral and intelligent acts a country can commit.