Last week, Seattle and King County law enforcement officials tried something new, not arresting drug dealers:
More than a dozen black binders, each with at least two inches of criminal evidence, were atop tables on the stage. Names were in bold and underlined on the front.
In the first three rows of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, the suspected drug dealers named in those binders filled the red seats next to family and friends in what felt like an intervention.
“If this was an ordinary day, I would be your prosecutor,” King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg told the men and women Thursday. Some could get 20 months in prison or even more, he said.
But Satterberg wanted them to walk away.
He announced an opportunity police and prosecutors in Seattle had never given in a community meeting: Stop dealing drugs and you won’t get prosecuted.
Interim Seattle Police Chief John Diaz, had written a letter last week to the dealers. He promised that if they showed at the Central District meeting they would not be arrested and repeated that promise again Thursday.
The idea is taken from a successful program in High Point, NC, where using interventions like this – rather than prison – to deal with drug dealing, worked to reduce crime in the community. The idea is an effective one because it targets one aspect of the drug war that tends to have some nasty downstream repercussions. In low-income communities where a lot of drug dealing occurs, young people who don’t see a lot of opportunities for themselves often choose to become drug dealers for either money or status. But as soon as they end up behind bars for that choice, it becomes significantly harder for them to put that choice behind them. Instead of reforming people in that situation, jail often does the opposite, and cements their lifelong participation in criminal activity.
This program works to break that cycle. By working to keep young people from making the choice to participate in drug markets, the demand for those drugs can be met elsewhere. In High Point, a medium sized town that sits inbetween the larger towns of Winston-Salem and Greensboro, any unmet demand likely just shifted to those larger communities. As a result, residents in High Point have seen former open air drug markets become safer places.
But will it happen here? At Saturday’s event in Shoreline, Diaz said that it wouldn’t be a city-wide effort, and as Philip Dawdy points out, this approach isn’t likely to work in the high-volume drug markets like Belltown anyway, where the dealers aren’t part of the community. In fact, this approach will likely make those groups (arguably the most dangerous) even wealthier.
Also, one of the dealers who was offered the deal had already been re-arrested by the weekend. He was a 39-year-old with a history of drug addiction problems. And he wasn’t arrested for dealing, but for using a crack pipe. This makes me wonder whether or not much thought was put into trying to separate people with actual drug problems from the people who enter the drug trade to make money. Treating both groups the same way doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
That’s not to say that this effort is pointless. It’s far better than sending as many young people to jail as possible, but what happened in High Point simply can’t be achieved here (or in any other large city) on a large scale. As has been pointed out ad nauseam for years, the only way to eliminate black market drug dealing is to treat addicts in a health care setting and to provide safe and legal outlets for recreational drugs that large numbers of adults use responsibly. Until that day, programs like these that divert some people from our prisons might improve a neighborhood (and that’s definitely a good thing), but will ultimately fail to do anything about the overall amount of illegal drug dealing in the city. To some extent, I have sympathy towards the officials who end up in this no-win situation, but that sympathy tends to wane when I hear so few of them willing to challenge the faulty underpinnings of the status quo.
UPDATE: For anyone heading to Netroots Nation this weekend, there will be a panel about the High Point drug diversion program.