Syracuse New Times- cover story

Scales of Injustice

Syracuse could be spearheading a nationwide dialogue regarding the unfair casualties from America's war on drugs

By Walt Shepperd

Can one city impact America's drug law madness? The question blared in a Jan. 3 Washington Post headline and amplified a Neal Peirce column: "Can a single city do anything to change drug policies that are delivering terror to our inner-city streets, diverting police, clogging our courts, breaking up families and making a once-proud America quite literally the incarceration capital of the world?"

A way tall order, he admitted, given the intransigency of state and federal drug laws. But Peirce also noted that with a detailed 2003 analysis of the drug laws' impact by outgoing City Auditor Minch Lewis, followed by a series of Common Council public hearings, Syracuse was "courageously asking tough questions and searching for alternatives."

Peirce also credited inspiration for Lewis' audit to local activist Nicolas Eyle, executive director of ReconsiDer: Forum on Drug Policy. "I've always felt that money was the key," Eyle says. "Money was the thing that would get everybody's attention in this issue. There have been many books published about all the suffering and the inordinately long prison sentences, but when it comes down to it, it's an incredible waste of money. You read in the paper about drug busts with 50 and 100 officers and three-month investigations. They must cost a mint."

Initial discussions between Eyle and Lewis began about a year ago at ReconsiDer advisory board meetings. Lewis suggested a questionnaire requesting the relevant statistics directed at the Syracuse Police Department. Eyle maintains it went nowhere. "After playing the game for awhile," he says, "I went to Minch and said, 'You're the city auditor. Can't you just do an audit? We decided that was the way to go. Minch was able, by virtue of his position, to get massive amounts of records. The numbers were strong enough to get some notice."

Lewis did not quote a dollar figure in his audit, citing a number of intangibles involved in making a computation. "This is at the heart of what is killing our city," he says now, "really every city, but especially those six neighborhoods where drug arrests were concentrated." The audit found that concentration in the Southwest Side, Valley West, the South Central business district, the Southeast Side, the near Southwest Side and the near West Side.

The audit also cited the city's Consolidated Plan for 2003-2004, the blueprint for spending the annual Community Development Block Grant, calling these neighborhoods "areas of minority concentration, with high percentages of households with low to moderate incomes." Generally, Lewis stressed the millions of dollars in property value lost to the homeowners in those neighborhoods. Specifically he cited the $35,000 it costs to incarcerate a person for one year in the New York state prison system.

Eyle adds that in response to Peirce's column he got calls expressing interest from city councilors in Seattle and the Connecticut cities of New Haven and Hartford, and from screenwriter Mike Gray (The China Syndrome), whom the Los Angeles Times asked to discuss the issue in an Op-Ed piece. To further spread the Syracuse message on the issue Eyle has gone audio-visual, preparing Plan B for Syracuse, a DVD which he has mailed to those who called after reading Peirce's column (which also appeared in 50 other newspapers, including the Jan. 16 Post Standard). A free screening of the DVD is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 9, 7 p.m., at the Westcott Community Center, 826 Euclid Ave. with a discussion to follow. For information, call 422-6231.

"I was tremendously impressed that this was such a serious effort on the part of the city auditor," Gray says in a telephone interview. "After I read about the hearings and watched the video, I said, 'This is something the L.A. City Council has to see.' I am presently working to force the issue."

Author of Drug Crazy (Random House, 1999), a history of drug laws since 1909, Gray's perspective is far from California dreaming. "We're closing emergency rooms because we just don't have the dough," he says. "We can't put enough cops on the street because we can't pay them. And drugs are easier to get, there are more of them and the people using them are getting younger."

Tale of the Tape

Gray is scheduling a showing of the video for Los Angeles councilors, seeing council hearings as a jumping-off point to establishing a similar investigation by that city's comptroller. "Then we'll move on the county board of supervisors and the county comptroller," he says. "It'll take months. But it took years in Syracuse and I hope we can show them it was worth the effort."

In Connecticut several cities may soon be following Syracuse's lead in holding public hearings on their own municipal war on drugs. Cliff Thornton is executive director of Efficacy, a Hartford-based group dedicated to finding peaceful ways of solving social problems, which has concentrated on urban drug policy over the past two years.

"City councilors from Hartford and New Haven are very excited," says Thornton, reflecting on several visits to Syracuse to lecture and conduct workshops over the past six years. "They're earnest. They're ready to roll. The one in Hartford I had been working with already are planning a three-day conference on drug policy. Another three, from Waterbury, New Britain and Norwalk, I can't say are reluctant because they called me. But they're wait-and-see until they look at the video."

The sudden responsiveness of mainstream politicians to an issue that has been perceived as countercultural comes as no surprise to Thornton. "We're giving them what they need," he says. "This is really the exit strategy to the financial crisis every city in Connecticut, and I would venture to say every city in every state in the union, has suffered over the past three years. The three biggest items impacting their budgets are law enforcement, mandatory minimum sentences and prison building. And they just don't have the money."

After testifying at the Syracuse hearings, Roger Goodman, who directs the Bar Association Drug Policy Project in Seattle, worked with the chair of the public safety committee of that city's council to schedule similar hearings. After four years of background work, the Seattle association has approved a resolution to be sent to the Washington state Legislature recommending total overhaul of the state drug laws.

"But we can work with the Onondaga County Bar Association and the Monroe County Bar Association on the street-level operational issues," Goodman observes. "You don't have to wait for major changes in the law. Between the Seattle resolution and the Syracuse hearings we're laying out menus of alternatives."

For Goodman, focusing on the adequate funding of treatment becomes a priority. "Our state will increase the budget for treatment by more than $50 million this year for those who couldn't afford it otherwise. On the city level, early intervention is key. This means comprehensive education for life skills. It means easier access to social and health and housing services, not automatic booking and lockup. Once you arrest and book, the meter's running. The one thing you don't want to do is pay undercover police to dress up like homeless people to buy from and bust other homeless people who are desperate for drugs. We really don't have the money for that."

Goodman and other critics of war-on-drugs strategies point to the wasted costs of time police officers spend on marijuana arrests that are eventually dismissed. "After reading the Peirce article," Eyle notes, "Eddie Ellison, the former head of Scotland Yard's drug squad, wrote me, 'It's posted on all the major UK boards, some good news from the U.S. drugs scene at last.' British laws are similar to ours, but they're dealing more honestly with the issue. It's still prohibition, but they realize the harm and the debate is much more open. They recently lowered the seriousness of marijuana offenses."

Closer to home, Mike Smithson, speakers bureau coordinator for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and former ReconsiDer colleague of Eyle's, bid on and won an on-line National Public Radio regional auction for lunch with Rochester Mayor William Johnson. Smithson saw an opportunity to take his cause directly to a city's chief executive. "We met one-on-one," Smithson says. "He's in his last year in office and he's not going to run again, so he's feeling his oats, like he can do things and not have to be so careful." Smithson presented Johnson with material from the Syracuse Common Council hearings and pitched the need for a similar series in Rochester.

"He brought up the murder rate in his city, 57 last year, the highest of any city of that size in the country, and he knew it was related to drug prohibition," Smithson recalls. "He asked how you can make a pitch against prohibition with the state and federal laws in place. I referred him to the suggestions Roger Goodman had made to the Monroe County Bar Association, a lot of steps possible prior to changing the laws. I pointed to the reduction in the state education budget and the corresponding increase in the corrections budget and the resulting raises in SUNY {State University of New York} tuition, an issue for his constituents who are parents. He's African-American, so he was sensitive to my question asking why with blacks only 13 percent of the drug-using population, 98 percent of the state=s drug felons were people of color."

Johnson invited Smithson for a follow-up lunch and Smithson will bring Eyle, who will suggest that what may be most helpful to Rochester and other municipalities from the Syracuse approach is the strictly budgetary argument in Lewis' audit. Noting that his final report started with a search for statistics and ended with a focus on dollars and sense, Lewis cited the Syracuse Police Department as the largest unit of city government, with more than 500 employees and a budget of $35 million, more than any other city department.

Pot Shots

The statistics Lewis started with would seem astonishing even to those who never leave their homes for fear that crime is waiting just outside their door. In the year ending June 30, 2002, Syracuse Police received more than 200,000 calls for help. "In responding to service requests," the audit reported, listing items that affected the resources of the city, "the SPD completed a total of 479,000 actions or 1,300 per day. Of the 479,000 actions, 28,800 actions resulted in arrests. Drug-related incidents resulted in the highest number of arrests, over 6,300."

From the statistics and listening to concerns expressed at neighborhood meetings, Lewis gained some operating perspective. "We were surprised to learn that twice as many people are arrested for drug-related incidents than for any other violation," he stated in the introduction to the audit, "and the violence in our neighborhoods is worse every year. Arresting people is not working." The report noted that of the 6,300 drug-related arrests, more than twice the next highest category of larceny with more than 3,000, included 1,984, or 31.5 percent, for possession, sale or use of marijuana.

Lewis' recommendation to explore alternatives to the local implementation of the war on drugs' total assault strategy stemmed from what seemed a general consensus at neighborhood meetings. "Most people are concerned about the violence that happens when drugs are sold on the corner," he maintained in his report. "They don't care if someone uses drugs in private. Our policy today may be contributing to the violence, just as Prohibition did for the last generation."

If Eyle had a magic wand to change local drug policy, Plan B would first need a shift in the federal breeze. "When the federal government realized that alcohol prohibition didn't work, they had to repeal a constitutional amendment to give the policy-making decisions back to the states," he explains. Achieving that, his wand would orchestrate a model reflective of the one developed by Goodman.

"On Jan. 20, the {Seattle} Bar Association passed a resolution proposing that the state set up a system to regulate all drugs and control the manufacture and distribution of all drugs," he says. "It would eliminate the black market and make drugs a public-health issue rather than one of law enforcement. Now, legalization does not mean putting 50-gallon drums of crack out in front of the schools for people to help themselves anymore than we have vending machines for alcohol. It's regulated and controlled. Right now there's no control on illegal drugs. People are selling them to 10-year-olds. Every maximum security prison in the state is full of drugs. If you can't keep them out of Attica, how can you keep them off your streets?"

While advocating locally, Eyle sees the big picture globally. "The United Nations says illegal drugs is the eighth largest business in the world, about equivalent in dollars to the textile industry. America faces three choices in control of its vast drug market: the government, free enterprise--big business--or the criminal cartels. For some reason we've turned it over to the criminals. You can certainly argue whether the government or the free market is better suited to the task, but we've made the dumbest of the three choices. I'm a free-market kinda guy, but if the government took it over, I could live with it, it would certainly be better than this."

After a decade of working intensely on the issue, Eyle believes the general public is ready to consider another alternative. "People don't care about inordinately large numbers of black people in prison," he laments. "They don't care about families being broken up. They don't care about invading other countries to put supposed drug lords out of business. They don't care about spraying poisonous chemicals on the rain forest in South America to eradicate coco crops uselessly because they crop up again in the next country. Those issues appeal to some people, but for the general public, they don't care. They care that their taxes are going up and their streets are not safe and the house they own in the city is worth half as much as it should be. And now, in Syracuse, N.Y., they held hearings on the issue that relate to what people care about. The hearings were held based on budget."

Lewis believes that the budget function provides the path for the Common Council to take action on the issue. "The City Charter requires each city department to submit program budgets with work plans," he says. "The council can vote on those budget items."

Stephanie Miner, who originally called the hearings as council finance chair, wants to see more, but thinks they should be called by the Public Safety Committee, where the discussion about the function of police officers could get sticky. "People look at you weird when you start talking about that," she says. Police Chief Stevie Thompson is taking a wait-and-see stance, saying that he wants more time to study the issue.

According to Miner, total overhaul of the drug laws may take a very long time."While we pay the price," she reflects, "we're the ones who see what a heavy toll it takes on our community and our financial bottom line. That problem is going to have to be effectively solved at the state, and perhaps the federal level. The Rockefeller drug laws {the draconian punishments initiated in 1973 by then-New York state Gov. Nelson Rockefeller} are going to have to be solved at the state level. But just because somebody else at another layer of government has the ability to solve, or at least address, the problem, doesn't mean that you shouldn't ask the question, doesn't mean that you shouldn't call attention to the fact that, 'Guess what, Gov. Pataki, maybe where you live the war on drugs seems like a good idea, but here on the front lines we spend an inordinate amount of money and nobody feels any safer."

Yet Miner does see some action as possible on the local level. "The Common Council can talk about the level of priority the police department gives to marijuana arrests. It's in our control to ask the question 'Is it worth it?' The other thing we can do is look at the toll that the Rockefeller drug laws take in our community and say to the state legislators and the governor that those laws are not helping anybody. In fact it's just the opposite. They're clogging up the courts, they're destroying lives of citizens and we're just moving backward under them. We need change. I don't know what that change is, but if you don't ask the initial question then you're not going to get to the solution."

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