Huffpost New York
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Richard Aborn Headshot

Drugs: We Can't Arrest Our Way Out of the Problem

Posted: Updated:

Nearly forty years after President Nixon declared a "war on drugs," it is clearer than ever that we cannot prosecute or incarcerate our way out of this problem. The consequences of the "war" approach in New York City have been disastrous: over the last twenty five years, drug arrests have gone from five percent to fourteen percent of the total number of arrests citywide. The percentage of people incarcerated for drugs is 75% in New York City jails and over 33% in New York State prisons.

We are decimating our communities and it's making the problem worse. And we know better.

According to the National Institute of Health, nearly ninety percent of individuals who suffer from illegal drug or alcohol abuse do not get the treatment they need. At the same time, a February 2005 General Accountability Office report found that employing drug courts - where defense attorneys and judges work together to find effective treatment options for offenders with substance abuse problems - lowers recidivism and reconviction rates in the year following completion of the program.

Yet in 2008, only 374 defendants were referred to drug courts in Manhattan, compared to 4006 referrals in Brooklyn, 1263 in the Bronx, and 504 in Queens. As the next Manhattan District Attorney, I will significantly expand the use and operation of drug treatment courts in New York County. I will also develop a Blueprint for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment in Manhattan, which will review prevention and treatment programs, assess the availability of funding to sustain those programs, outline strategies to increase access to services, and identify current program and service gaps. Reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws were an important first step in changing our approach to drugs - but to make those reforms successful, we must also provide adequate treatment programs as alternatives to incarceration for non-violent, first and second-time drug offenders.

We also need to do more to support drug treatment in prison and among parolees. As D.A., I'll support expanding funding for jail and prison based treatment and counseling programs, and increase the number of parolees who are eligible for participation in the Fair Chance Initiative, which diverts non-violent recidivists with substance abuse problems to effective community based treatment programs.

By building on the Rockefeller Drug Reforms with effective prevention and treatment programs, we can substantially reduce criminal activity while also saving taxpayer dollars. According to the Drop the Rock campaign, in New York State, treatment costs around $21,000 while a year in prison costs $44,000.

We also have to be more aggressive in going after drug kingpins. Here in New York, that is part of a larger problem with gang activity. As District Attorney, I'll reduce street level drug sales - and associated violence - by implementing the "High Point Initiative", a collective accountability strategy, developed and tested successfully in Boston, where law enforcement officials and community leaders reach out directly to individuals engaged in gang activity. We will build criminal cases against low level drug dealers and then bring the offenders, their families and community members together. With the community, we will work with gang members and their families to steer gang members to other activity as an alternative to whatever security they believe the gang provides. Across the country, this partnership between law enforcement and communities has resulted in significant reductions in violence, and we've got to do it here in New York.

We've got to change our law enforcement approach and start doing things that will reduce demand, and treat drug addiction as a public health issue. We can't simply arrest our way out of the problem - it does little to increase public safety and comes at an extraordinary fiscal and human cost, particularly in minority communities. There is something wrong with our criminal justice system when almost one in three African American men will spend a portion of their life in prison, and four out of five juvenile offenders will be re-arrested within a few years of their first arrest.

With a meaningful partnership between law enforcement and the communities we protect, and through more progressive and effective methods of prevention and treatment, we can stop non-violent drug offenses before they start. Let's start doing what works.