I like this strategy because it overcomes one of the fundamental flaws with the economic premise behind crime and punishment that make incarceration a failed approach for eradicating drug crime, particularly open air drug markets.
The initiative, run by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, targets violent crime and open-air drug markets that are the scourge of some communities. The program is potentially controversial because it involves not prosecuting known offenders if they agree to quit their criminal activities. ...
Developed by David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College in New York, the crime program combines elements of initiatives run in the 1990s in Boston and in High Point (North Carolina) in 2004 that were credited by authorities with helping reduce youth gang and drug violence. Boston authorities say their program cut youth homicides by two-thirds and homicides citywide by half. The High Point plan eliminated drug markets citywide, the city says.
Under the project, law-enforcement officials and prosecutors in the cities identify individuals operating in violent-crime areas who haven't yet committed serious violent crimes, and build cases against them, including undercover operations and surveillance. The culmination is a "call in" when the case is presented to the would-be suspect in front of law enforcement, community leaders, ex-offenders and friends and family.
"The prosecutor talks to them and lets them know: 'we could arrest you now but we won't because the drug dealing stops today, the violence stops today,'" said Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay. "If you continue, you now know the consequences and you've seen the case against you but we don't want to send you to prison."
Meanwhile, violent criminals who are identified will be arrested. In the High Point project, drug dealers weren't included in the program if they had a history of violence; had gun violations that were considered dangerous; or had pending cases against them.
The strategy makes even more sense when you realize, as the authors of Freakonomics demonstrated, that most drug dealers live with their mothers and thus are probably more susceptible to community influence than antisocial stereotypes give them credit for.
The economic premise behind most criminal laws is that the punishment is the "price" for illegal activity, which offenders should presumably not participate in unless they're willing to "pay." However, this conception of punishment as "price" ignores the dramatic real-world uncertainty about outcomes and what economists call "free rider" problems. Most people involved in most illegal drug transactions are not arrested or incarcerated, so participants in drug markets do not perceive they'll necessarily pay a "price" for their offenses, and certainly not for the next marginal offense where odds of capture are statistically pretty low.
That uncertainty makes it much less likely criminal laws influence behavior because most rational risk assessors do not assume they'll pay a "price" for any given offense. But if you inform somebody (and the people around them) that the Sword of Damocles is looming directly over their head so that they perceive incarceration as an immediate risk, that "price" becomes much more real and likely to influence behavior, particularly among callow youth who aren't yet so deep in the game.
For more details on what's become known as the "High Point" strategy (named for the town in North Carolina where it was popularized), see past Grits coverage and also these resources on the topic:
- Wall Street Journal: "Novel police tactic puts drug markets out of business," Sept. 27, 2006
- David Kennedy: "Drugs, Race and Common Ground: Reflections on the High Point intervention," based on remarks at a 2008 NIJ conference
- YouTube video (11 minutes): "Innovators' Focus: Overt Drug Market Strategy Curbs Crime"