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by Peter Moskos

September 30, 2015

The War on Drug does create prisoners

In the New York Times David Brooks repeats John Pfaff's argument in Slate that the war on drugs isn't responsible for our crazy high prison population. Brooks vouches for Pfaff as "wonderfully objective, nonideological and data-driven." That might all be true. Pfaff is probably a swell guy and kind to animals, too.

There's something to be said for talking to warm human beings rather than correlating cold data. Now admittedly being "data-driven" does beat the alternative of just making shit up. But the problem one sees in the "data-driven" fields (and Brooks is an economist) is that if you don't understand the data in the first place, you can be "data-driven" till the polynomial regressions correlate with statistical certainty... and still be wrong.

Pfaff says:
The fact of the matter is in today’s state prisons, which hold about 90 percent of all of our prisoners, only 17 percent of the inmates are there primarily for drug charges.
No shit. But who really thinks that only convictions related to the War on Drug are "drug charges"? (It's worth mentioning that a violent drug dealer might cop a plea to a "non-violent possession" charge, but still be sent to prison for the crime actually committed.)

The War on Drugs doesn't just create "drug" prisoners. Prohibition creates unregulated public drug markets. That's where the violence is. Prohibition doesn't lessen addiction. And that's where you find the property crimes. We need to end the drug war not to release a bunch of pot-heads from prison but to change the violent culture of the streets.

The main problem with the War on Drugs -- and it's not locking up too many non-violent drug users -- is the violence inherent in an illegal public drug market. Pacifists don't last long slinging on the corner. Arresting a drug dealer creates a job opening for another potentially violent street-corner dealer. Lawyers and economists should be able to understand that.


Concerned citizen said...

Peter, you wrote:

"We need to end the drug war not to release a bunch of pot-heads from prison but to change the violent culture of the streets."

"The main problem with the War on Drugs -- and it's not locking up too many non-violent drug users -- is the violence inherent in an illegal public drug market."

My problem with both the causal and correlative implications of your statements is that they conflict with a basic timeline: The peak years of violence in the 'hood pre-dated the War on Drugs.

According to CDC homicide victim data for selected years (1960, 1970, 1980, etc.), 1970 was the peak year for black males being murdered.

As you (and others) have noted, homicide is the gold standard of crime data, and is a relatively reliable indicator of the rates of other types of violent crime, which aren't reported or collected with anything near the completeness or accuracy as homicide.

From CDC Health United States, 2013; table 34, p. 2 of 4
Homicide rates (per 100k residents) for black males

I concede, because of recent remarkable improvements in trauma care, comparing homicide victim rates for 1970 to, say, 2010, might be misleading. I do not, however, believe this factor invalidates my main point: Violent crime in the 'hood peaked prior to the War on Drugs.

Peter Moskos said...

I would not have guessed that the rate peaked in 1970. Interesting. (Actually, I see it peaked in the mid-1970s, but either way... almost 1 murder per 1,000 black males is a crazy high rate.)

I don't think it goes against the idea that A) violence is caused by drug prohibition (public drug dealing) and B) the war on drugs created mass incarceration.

My point is that it is *not* directly the violence that filled the prisons. Arresting corner dealers won't stop corner dealing. They'll get replaced. We'll always have violence as long as we have public drug dealings. That's almost a given. Prisons and the war on drugs? That's a political choice.

And you can look at improved hospital care (others have) by comparing shootings and killings. Off the top of my head, I think it explains about 1/3 of the decrease in shooting homicides since then.

Concerned citizen said...

I accept that drug prohibition is a major contributor to violence in the hood.

My question is, why were black homicide victim rates 24% higher in 1970 than in 1990?...Considering that 1970 was completely prior to the hyper-prohibitive War on Drugs, and 1990 was the height of the crack epidemic and, arguably, smack dab in the middle of the War on Drugs.

Peter Moskos said...

I know. I'm surprised. I mean, the difference could all be because of better medical care. But even then... why were black male violence rates in 1970 even *close* to equal what was found when crack was king?

Adam said...

Pfaff does acknowledge and (to some extent) address your argument.


See page 217-220.

Concerned citizen said...

Comparing 1990 to 1970-

On one hand, better trauma care in 1990 surely helped dampen the homicide victim rate.

On the other hand, a (purported; unquantifiable) large increase in the quantity and quality (caliber; rate of fire) of guns on the street in 1990 arguably should have inflamed the homicide victim rate.

Peter Moskos said...

Thanks, Adam.

And if guns are more lethal, than the 1st-responders and hospitals deserve even more credit. Shooting survival rates are definitely up over the years.

Adam said...

Peter: Having read Pfaff's entire article, it strikes me as a very important contribution and not objectively "wrong" in any way I can see. He acknowledges that there many be several good reasons for ending the War on Drugs, including what I think was your point about property crime -- that prohibition doesn't fix the addiction problem, which drives property offenses. (See p.220: "treating drug use as a criminal rather than public health issue may foreclose more effective treatment options...").

Your other argument seems to be that drug prohibition causes a lot of violence. That seems obviously right. But, of course, drugs were illegal long before the "War on Drugs", and as Concerned Citizen points out, the rate of violence peaked before the start of the War on Drugs. It's possible there were other factors driving up the homicide rate in the 1960s and 70s, and as those factors died down, the War on Drugs stepped in and caused the murder rate to stay high when it otherwise would have dropped. But that's just me making shit up. It'd be interesting to see if an economist or criminologist could tackle that question.

More broadly, I wonder why you think aggressive drug enforcement would cause violence to increase. The bigger problem seems to be the existence of a black market for drugs, which will exist no matter how aggressively we enforce the drug laws. So long as those laws are on the books, the corner liquor stores won't be able to start selling heroin and push the corner boys out of business. What if we just stopped enforcing drug laws altogether (but didn't legalize drugs)? Would drug dealers stop killing each other? They'd still fight over money and territory, wouldn't they?

I take it you think removing one drug dealer creates a "job opportunity" over which prospective drug dealers then fight, but I'm slow to believe that's a big driver of the violence. Most of the street dealers I've seen operate as part of some type of crew, even if it's only a few guys. If one low level dealer disappears, is the territory really "open for competition"? It seems that kind of violence would only errupt after enormous crackdowns that wipe out entire crews. And to be sure, that does happen, but without seeing some data, I'm not convinced that that drives most of the murders these days. Drug dealers kill each other for a lot of reasons. Money, women, being disrespected, trying to take drug territory that someone else has. I tend to think all those drivers of violence would still be there even if we scaled back drug enforcement. (And I know you favor full legalization of all drugs, but the issue here is the effect of the so-called "War on Drugs", not drug prohibition generally).

Peter Moskos said...

[This is from "Concerned Citizen," I just combined and edited three comments. -- PCM]

First, thank you Prof. Moskos for linking the Slate article, which is fascinating, and thank you Adam for the link to the Pfaff journal article.

In the Pfaff journal article, Figure 7 on p. 217 caught my eye: "Drug Inmates in NY Prisons, 1965-2013", which provides data I'll use below to possibly shed some light on the timeline of the relationship of black levels of violence to the War on Drugs:

Drug Inmates in NY Prisons--about 2000
Homicide victim rate for black males: 78.2

Drug Inmates in NY Prisons--about 3000
Homicide victim rate for black males: 69.4

1985--Drug Inmates in NY Prisons--about 2000
Homicide victim rate for black males: Unavailable

Drug Inmates in NY Prisons--about 12,500
Homicide victim rate for black males: 63.1

Here is comparison that makes it's apples/apples shortcomings transparent:

From 1980 to 1990, drug inmates IN NEW YORK prisons increased 316% while the homicide victim rate for black males IN THE ENTIRE U.S. decreased 9%.

Peter Moskos said...


I have not read his whole piece. So I defer to your overall analysis. My gripe is simply when he assumes there's *any* valid connection between "drug prisoners" and overall prisoners related to the war on drugs. I guess I should read the whole article. Sigh.

I did read the part you highlighted (pp. 217-220)

The part that bothers me most is this: "defining “drug offenders” solely as those convicted of drug crimes is not as objectively correct as it might initially seem." Yeah, no shit. (I don't even understand why it might seem initially correct.) But simply acknowledging this massive limitation in the data hardly excuses then using the data. People do not (with a few notable exceptions) go to prison for non-violent personal possession of drug. They go for crimes related -- often tangentially -- to the illegal drug market. If you start by focusing on "drug offenders" as some indicator of drug war prisoners, of course you're going to reach the false conclusion that the drug war didn't play a large part in our prison build up. Aggressive drug enforcement increases the prison population. And you're not going to see that only by looking at "drug prisoners."

If you focus police attention on drug corners and ramp up drug laws, you are going to arrest a lot more people on a drug corner for all offensive for fighting or gun possession or loitering or any other minor or serious crime. People build a rap sheet. This comes into play in sentencing. When you pluck people off the drug corner for a felony and they (eventually) end up in prison, you do nothing to stop either the violence or the drug dealing. There's a limitless supply of potential offenders. And kids do get drawn into the game because of "job openings" either through homicide or incarceration. That's the pipeline that massive enforcement opens up. We could have the same violence and the same drugs but with 1.5 million fewer prisoners? Does that make sense?

The part I find most interesting is this: "The connection between drug enforcement and violence is likely weaker today than in the past: violence overall is lower than it has been in forty years, yet drug consumption and drug markets are still operating at levels comparable to those in the much more violent 1980s."

That's an good point. Why is this? I don't know.

I think violence will always be part of the illegal public drug trade. And of course there are other factors as well. (Aren't there always?)

I think enforcement has much less an impact on violence (in either direction). But inasmuch as it does have an impact on violence, I think enforcement generally increases corner violence by decreasing stability (and maturity) in those who are part of the illegal public drug market.

I don't think it's enforcement that causes violence. It's the drug market that causes violence. But even then it's a good idea to ask why "the connection between drug *dealing* and violence is weaker today than in the past"?

Adam said...

Gotcha. Pfaff does say in the introduction (see p.175) that there are "five means by which the War on Drugs can drive up incarceration rates," only one of which is the direct incarceration of drug offenders. Another is your building-a-rap-sheet point. He discusses that more fully beginning on p.196.

I agree that enforcement can increase corner violence by decreasing stability. It might, however, also decrease violence in the sense that with the War on Drugs come certain "forms of proactive police work -- clearing drug corners, frisking suspects, and making discretionary arrests -- that deter some criminals from carrying illegal guns." So the drug dealers are more inclined to kill each other because cops keep destabilizing the drug market, but they have a harder time killing each other because the cops are always out on the drug corners jacking them up. What's the net effect of those two things operating at once? I dunno. Maybe better (more aggressive?) police practices explain why the connection between drug dealing is weaker today than in the past. Or does it have to do with the declining profitability of the drug trade? I think that's part of the conclusion in that Fryer, et al. piece that Pfaff cites to. I also spotted this article, which I don't have time to read.

Adam said...

"the connection between drug dealing and violence", I meant to say.

Peter Moskos said...

Good points. And I certainly do believe, as we've seen in Baltimore post-April 27, that lack of aggressive police practices can have a huge effect in terms of violence going up. There's a distinction between micro-level policing of the drug war (good) and meso-level policing (not so good). So I guess I'm trying to say is that it's better to focus on quality-of-life issues related to the drug trade than, say, arresting another "kingpin." Even though the latter puts guns and drugs on the table and puts a so-called bad guy in prison for a long time.

Peter Moskos said...

Good letter to ed in NYT:

Mass incarceration grew out of harsh sentencing for drug offenses, mandatory minimum sentences that required imprisonment for less serious crimes, and very long sentences, especially for violence. This may be the “popular” narrative, as David Brooks asserts, but it is also the consensus of the National Academy of Sciences report on incarceration that systematically reviewed all the scholarly research.

To minimize, as Mr. Brooks does, the effects of the war on drugs flies in the face of the evidence. Over the last four decades, incarceration rates for drug offenses increased tenfold, compared with a fourfold increase for all other crimes.

Similarly, it is deeply misleading to claim that prosecutors simply became more aggressive over this period, without acknowledging that stricter penal laws provided them new leverage to negotiate more punitive outcomes.

To reduce the country’s needlessly high incarceration rates, we must recognize the crucial role of our policy choices to launch a war on drugs, to enact mandatory minimums and to embrace very long prison sentences that are largely unknown outside the United States.



Cambridge, Mass.

Concerned citizen said...

On the one hand, we have the letter of Mr. Travis and Mr. Western; o the other hand, we have the words of Erik Ekholm in the NY Times, "How to Cut the Prison Population":

"A new interactive 'prison population forecaster,' posted online Tuesday by the Urban Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank in Washington....yields some sobering conclusions."

"There is no avoiding the politically poisonous question of releasing violent offenders or reducing their long sentences."

What surprised me most in using the tool....is just how hard it will be to turn back the clock and achieve deep reductions in incarceration."

" 'Even if every person in state prison for a drug offense were released today, mass incarceration would persist,' the report said."


Peter Moskos said...

I think we all agree here. To get our prisons to world (and former US) levels, we would need to release *80 percent* of prisoners. It probably can't be done. But we cut try and choke off the pipeline into prison and wait a decade or two.