Thursday, November 15, 2007

"Judge" for yourself: do more police reduce or create crime?

Today I was listening to Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court Myron Steele interviewed on WDEL by Rick Jensen, Tyler Nixon, and their audience.

One call in particular struck me--not then, but about ninety minutes later when I was doing something else. The caller asked the Chief Justice to explain why the Superior Court needs four new judges.

Chief Justice Steele explained that the Superior Court had not had a new justice added since 1994, and that the court's caseload was at the "breaking point." He pointed out that both the Attorney General's office and Delaware law enforcement in New Castle County had received substantive personnel increases since 1997 (I did not get down the exact percentages and don't want to misquote him), which had in turn lead to a dramatic increase in cases before the court.

This all sounded logical, until....

I started to think about what such a correlation really means. What we have been sold on in a statist society is the idea that more police will make us safer: crime rates will go down.

And in Delaware, more or less, they have.

In 1997 the index of violent and property crimes in Delaware was 37,612, with 4,962 (13.2%) from violent crimes and 32,650 (86.8%) from property crimes. By last year the statewide index had declined to 34,488, although the number and percentage of violent crimes had risen--to 5,317 (15.4%)--with property crimes checking in at 29,171 (84.6%). Thus the overall crime index has declined in the past decade by 3,124 annually, or roughly 8.3%. (Source: Disaster

Which leads me to my confusion with Chief Justice Steele. If the number of police and prosecutors available has dramatically increased, AND the number of violent and property crimes has significantly decreased, why is the Superior Court (and, he argued by extension, the Court of Common Pleas) so overworked?

Part of the answer came in Chief Justice Steele's response to another caller, who wanted to know about "Drug Courts." He implied that the caseloads there were very heavy, and that the State lacked sufficient treatment programs to deal with all those whose cases merited it under sentencing guidelines. Moreover, he explained that police and prosecutors had control over the decisions whether to prosecute each individual offense as a felony or misdemeanor.

Have arrests for drug use accounted for the increase in caseload in Delaware's courts?

Scott Christiansen, a former New York state criminal justice official, writing for the Christian Science Monitor last year, would argue this may well be the case.

Nationwide, he points out, as overall crime rates have dropped, so have the "clearance" rates of police departments ("Clearance" means that the case ended in identifying or charging a suspect). Indeed, Christiansen noted, the decline has been so marked that,

The arrest clearance rate for reported homicides recently dropped to about 60 percent compared with about 90 percent 50 years ago. This means that a murderer today has about a 40 percent chance of avoiding arrest compared with less than 10 percent in 1950.

On the other hand, Christiansen notes,

So, if reported crime has been going down and arrests have gone up, what accounts for the plummeting arrest clearance rates for murder, robbery, rape, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft?

Part of the answer must involve drug law enforcement - victimless offenses that aren't reported to the police or included as FBI Index Crimes. Instead of arresting suspects for burglaries and other serious reported crimes, cops today spend much of their energy going after illegal drugs. Their arrest rate for drug possession (especially marijuana) has shot up more than 500 times from what it was in 1965.

He posits two disquieting implications from this: (A) that perpetrators of violent and property crimes may well realize that the focus on anti-drug policing gives them a better chance of success; (B) support for police may be declining in high-crime neighborhoods, where residents find that victimless crimes are more swiftly and dependably dealt with than murder, rape, or assault.

What's a Libertarian interpretation of all this?

When you add more police and more prosecutors, these individuals have to justify their existence. Their existence, in an organizational sense, is generally justified by generating arrest, clearance, and conviction statistics. It is far easier to roll up such statistics in dealing with victimless crimes like drug use and prostitution than it is with violent or major property crimes.

Who are they arresting for these crimes?

Let's take a look at the 2007 DEA drug report for Delaware.

Noticeably vague on arrest statistics, this report indicates that heroin, cocaine (powder and crack), and marijuana are the major drugs of choice in the First State, followed by Club Drugs like MDMA, abused prescription pharmaceuticals, and methamphetamine.

It is difficult to read between the lines in DEA reports, as drug use is always growing (the DEA always needs a bigger budget) and virtually every state you check (try it!) will have illegal drug use spreading out from the cities into the towns and farms even as we speak.

A few interesting notes creep in, however, like the treatment of pot smoking in Delaware:

Marijuana is readily available in varying quantities in Delaware, such that it is easily obtained and used by individuals from a variety of ethnic populations and socioeconomic sectors. Recreational use of marijuana is popular among high school and college age students. Adults remain the predominant users of marijuana, especially in large social gatherings, such as rock concerts. Reports indicate that marijuana is typically smoked in combination with crack cocaine, heroin, and PCP.

That last sentence, about smoking marijuana "typically" in conjunction with harder drugs is notorious difficult to document, and has become the 21st Century version of the assertion that marijuana is a "gateway" drug, which therefore justifies its continuing criminalization even when the pharmaceutical effects do not.

Aside from that largely undocumented assertion, what we find when we look closer is that nationwide (and Delaware seems to be no exception), adults--especially middle-class adults from their 20's to their 40s--are the primary demographic group being arrested for marijuana use. That, in large measure, accounts for many of the people going through our Drug Courts.

What everybody in these reports and interviews--all the way from the DEA up to Chief Justice Steele--dances around is that the "war on drugs" is rapidly replacing any "war on crime" that all these extra police, prosecutors, and judges might have been utilized for.

An interesting thought experiment: if we decriminalized marijuana possession, what kind of negative impact would that have on arrest and clearance rates? What police activities would have to increase in order to justify continually increasingly budgets and personnel assets? Maybe, just maybe, clearance rates on violent and property crimes would have to start going back up.

Is there a moral and ethical case for decriminalizing marijuana possession and revisiting other drug regulations? I think so, as much as I work to keep my own pre-teens from sampling the pharmaceutical wonders of the world.

But there is also a possibility, which needs to be studied very carefully by disinterested researchers, that decriminalizing marijauna possession might also make a larger dent in crimes that have very real, often very bloodied, victims.


Anonymous said...

That was well thought out and supported. Your logic is good and this is a refreshing look at continually increasing the population of police/prosecutors/judges.

Too many people have a gut reaction to decriminalization of drugs and prostitution though. To get clear of this "Drug War" on ourselves will require a political push with very little political payoff. Prostitutes and drugies don't vote, so that leaves it up to civil libertarians. A tough sell. I hope you can convince a few to look at this anew.

Anonymous said...

I am not convinced that decriminalizing marijauna possession alone would have as large of a positive effect as some people think. It might even have a paradoxical effect of making prohibition related crime & violence seem worse.

While marijauna decriminalization would definitely free up some prison space and lighten the caseloads for both the Courts and Probation & Parole officers in the short term, it would also tend to lower the price and increase the availability of marijuana.

This will drive some of the dealers who were in it for the excitement & high profits to sell harder drugs, increasing the competition in those very violent markets.

Meanwhile it is far from clear that the Police and Prosecutors will shift their focus to real crime.

They just might opt to focus more on club drugs & psychedelics while augmenting their budget by arresting and fining as many marijuana users & dealers as possible while lobbying for re-criminalization by arguing that the wider availability of the "gateway drug" marijuana has led to increased demand for heroin, coke and meth.

Any marijuana decriminalization bills would have to be very carefully crafted to avoid this sort of perverse incentive. Full legalization of marijuana, or decriminalizing posession of all drugs probably would both do more to address the problems of drug law-related crime & violence.