The police watched a drug deal in Newport News, Virginia, and built strong evidence against the drug dealers ... then did something unusual: instead of arresting and prosecuring the criminals, the police invited them for a talk instead.
Welcome to the brave new world of drug-market intervention:
POLICE watched seven people sell drugs in Marshall Courts and Seven Oaks, two districts in south-eastern Newport News, in Virginia. They built strong cases against them. They shared that information with prosecutors. But then the police did something unusual: they sent the seven letters inviting them to police headquarters for a talk, promising that if they came they would not be arrested. Three came, and when they did they met not only police and prosecutors, but also family members, people from their communities, pastors from local churches and representatives from social-service agencies. Their neighbours and relatives told them that dealing drugs was hurting their families and communities. The police showed them the information they had gathered, and they offered the seven a choice: deal again, and we will prosecute you. Stop, and these people will help you turn your lives around.
Is it working? Time will tell, but one thing's for sure: the current way of fighting drugs isn't working.
Traditional drugs policing targets both users and dealers. This poses three main problems. First, low-level dealers are eminently replaceable: arrest two and another two will quickly take their places, with little if any interruption to sales. Second, it tends to promote antagonism between the police and the mostly poor communities where drug markets are found. Arrests can seem random: only one in every 15,000 cocaine transactions, for instance, results in prison time, but those other 14,999 sales are just as illegal as that one. In some neighbourhoods, prison is the norm, or at least common, for young men. Police come to be seen as people who take sons, brothers and fathers away while the neighbourhood remains unchanged. Third, prison as a deterrent does not work. If it did, America would be the safest country on earth.