Police and prosecutors say they’ve seen it over and over again: low-level drug dealers are picked up, sent through a year of legal process, and are released back out onto the street where they quickly get back into their old routine. And like a tube of toothpaste, police enforcement and focus on one area only temporarily pushes the problem and the players over to a different part of the neighborhood.
Last night SPD Capt. Paul McDonagh and Deputy Prosecutor Tienney Milnor started to collect community feedback on a different approach that has seen success in a few other cities around the country. It would take people picked up for low-level drug dealing and give them a choice: stop dealing and work with the community to clean up your act, or else have the book thrown at you for your offences.
A key feature of the new program is the “call-in”, an initial meeting between the offender, the offender’s family, law enforcement, and community members. Law enforcement would let the offender know that they have a solid case against them if they choose to prosecute, family members would face the truth about the offender’s behavior, and community members would have an opportunity to explain how the offender’s actions have damaged the neighborhood.
If the offender chooses to accept the offer, they’re given community support and access to a whole range of existing social services to help in whatever ways they need to adjust to a non-criminal life. The offender only has to agree to not reoffend, and know that if they do the community will be watching and prosecutors will go for the maximum and put them in jail for a long time.
The participation of the community is key. They are there to both provide a new support structure to the offender and to hold them accountable for their improvement. Law enforcement officials say that their long-term goal is to hand the program off to the community and allow them to control, define, and shape it.
A key failure point in the current system is at the time of sentencing. Offenders either cop a plea or get convicted, and at the time of sentencing it’s only prosecutors vs. a contrite defendant who tells the judge about their bad situation and how they’re trying to turn their life around. A reduced sentence is often given, but that’s the end of the process and there’s no way to follow up on the defendant’s claims of personal improvement. This new program would give the offenders a monitored way to try for that improvement, and give the judge hard evidence to avoid leniency if they fail to live up to their promises.
It’s important to note that only low-level players would qualify for the new program. It would target the dealers who work out on the street, often as a way to support their own addictions. People involved in violence or at higher levels of the drug trade would not be eligible.
The scope of the program will be limited to a single open-air drug market within the East Precinct. The ongoing issues at 23rd & Union would be a good example, possibly taking in the area from Union to Cherry and 20th to MLK. It could then be replicated to other markets and other parts of the city if the initial program shows evidence of success.
Right now city law enforcement officials are just starting the outreach to seek community support for the new program. They’ll be talking to a number of different community groups and social service providers to collect feedback and make sure that the community is behind the effort and ready to do their part to make it happen. They’ve also targeted 2000 households with a survey to gauge neighborhood perception of crime and will use that to help design the program’s details.
It’s clear that the current system of enforcement costs a lot of money and provides poor long-term results. A coordinated effort to take drug dealers off the street through positive change could be the thing that provides some clear improvement in the community.