Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Prosecutor: It's just like beating your dog ...

The War on Drugs is "simply not working," declares the headline in the May 15 New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung.
Comal County’s district attorney and one of its district judges agreed this past week that the United States government’s “war on drugs” — and its judicial system — just aren’t working when it comes to stopping abuse of alcohol and illegal drugs. ...

Law enforcement fights what is at best trench warfare against drug-related crime. The two sides, mired in muddy holes they can’t pull themselves out of, stare at one another across no man’s land. They snipe at one another and there are casualties on both sides, but nothing ever really changes.

The judicial system strives to create an environment in which the war’s wounded and its survivors can be rehabilitated. While there are glowing success stories, the weight of the failures is apparent everywhere and bears on society — including right here in New Braunfels.
That result from the war on drugs is pretty typical, I think, hardly anomalous. But you don't usually see law enforcement types admitting it in the newspaper. Before becoming District Attonrey in Comal County, Dib Waldrip was a New Braunfels cop, then a prosecutor for a narcotics task force, so that background informs his anti-drug strategies. He thinks we're not incarcerating enough low-level drug addicts:
in recent years, Waldrip pointed out, the tendency to downplay the offenses of drug users or even some small-time drug dealers, has hamstrung the ability of the legal system to combat drug use — and has actually increased use.

“From a purely economic standpoint, if you look at it from an aspect of risk, when you reduce that risk, more people are willing to try drugs and your demand curve goes up,” Waldrip said. “Reduce the risks, and people say, ‘Why not try it?’ I’m not saying we should put them all in jail for life, but there needs to be a fast, sure punishment. When you beat your dog four months after he eats your shoe, you aren’t teaching him anything.”
Damn, with such a sophisticated approach, it's hard to know, isn't it, where things went wrong? If Mr. Waldrip's methods of prosecution match his sadistic dog training skills, then we know why the war on drugs is failing there. It's being operated by thoughtless fools whose tactics are making the problem worse. The system he's operating doesn't aim to make the public safe -- it aims to force submission from those it targets, to break their spirit, to build up resentment, anger and spite among them, just like beating a dog leaves the animal scared and confused, but not necessarily better behaved.

Anyone who's done any dog training knows that Mr. Waldrip's approach doesn't work well, even on animals. To train a dog without breaking its spirit or thwarting the breed's natural strengths, one uses encouragement as well as correction -- "beatings" are never useful, and for a skilled trainer are counterproductive. Mostly, to train an animal requires time and the focused attention of the trainer -- animals need supervision, encouragement, and correction in a fashion that changes behavior instead of just seeking revenge for misconduct. Beating a dog may make it quit eating your shoe (or it often may not; sometimes, puppies just eat shoes), but it won't prepare the animal to do anything else.

Not everybody in Comal County agrees with Waldrip. Another former police officer, District Judge Jack Robison, thinks they're already too focused on the little guys. He isn't so sure about the lock-em-up approach for low-level folks:

Robison, now in his 50s, said he could remember one or another variation of the “war on drugs” over his entire career. From his perspective, he said, he would like to see more of the heavy hitters — the kingpins, the dealers and the couriers — come before his bench and hand out the kind of heavy sentences society expects.

“I can remember busting kids for drugs when I was a young cop,” Robison said. “One thing you almost never see is the mules bringing it in getting caught. The user, the guy on the street corner selling it, they’re poor. They’re selling it to pay their suppliers who are pocketing the profits.”

Substance abuse, Robison said, is an enormous drain on society.

“I don’t think we’re being very successful in dealing with it,” he said.

But he wasn’t sure, Robison added, what society could or should do to address it.

“Prohibition hasn’t worked. The latest thing is the drug court, combined with rehabilitation or cognitive programs designed to change behavior. We may be at the point where it’s time to consider a drug court in Comal County,” Robison said.

A bill before this legislature would create another district court — again because of the heavy caseloads here — that would serve only Comal County. Perhaps a drug court wouldn’t be very far off.
That drug court is a better approach. From a dog trainer's perspective, stronger probation systems like drug courts provide the kind of oversight people need to avoid getting into more trouble. In the current system, you receive either probation or prison as a sentence, but for most offenders on regular probation, no one really supervises them, so many re-offend or are revoked on technical violations. With 150 probationers per case officer statewide, there really isn't any hope of providing stronger supervision that protects the public without significant changes to the system. Caseloads must decline and the goal of the system must be for offenders to end their addictions and change their behavior, not just to find an excuse to revoke them to prison.

I'm glad to see this debate taking place in small-town Texas. Folks in New Braunfels may not have any more solutions than the rest of us, but it's good they're starting to ask the right questions. Like, "Is this working?"


Anonymous said...

Judge Robison has it right on this one. With unemployment high for poor kids, TV and movies glorifying the issue, where else do they have to turn to make some money? I feel that this is a failure of society, and jailing kids for dealing to make a buck is no where near the mark we have to hit in order to stop the flow of drugs. Protect our borders better and the influx of those drugs will be curtailed to the point that it makes profitability of the real culprets not worth the effort.
Save our children, don't jail them unless they hurt someone.
RZ San Antonio

Anonymous said...

Until "equal opportunity" and other programs that hire and protect competely incompetent State employees from being held accountable for their "let the next man worry about it" attitudes, NOTHING will change. The system is doomed, as would be ANY system that allows this to flourish. Start firing, and hire some fresh blood from the top down.