Are Drugs Still Trumps?

July 8, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

For decades, drug policy in the US was based on a kind of hysteria, with lawmakers trying to outdo one another in dreaming up harsher and harsher punishments. Slowly but surely, drug laws are becoming more rational. But there are still people who think they can win an argument by shouting “drugs!” in a crowded-prison debate. They toss “drugs” out like a high trump card to sweep everything else off the table.

A few days ago, the Times ran an article by reporter Erik Ekholm on the children of parents who are incarcerated. Ekholm cited research, by sociologists such as the redoubtable Sara Wakefield, showing that having a parent sent away to prison does not generally contribute greatly to a kid’s well-being.

In the spirit of fair and balanced journalism, Ekholm was required to give space to the lock-’em-up folks, so he gives us “Heather MacDonald, a legal expert at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research group.”
“A large portion of fathers were imprisoned on violence or drug-trafficking charges,” she said. “What would be the effects on other children in the neighborhood if those men are out there?”
Note Ms. MacDonald’s equation of violence and “drug-trafficking,” as though the person selling crack or heroin to willing customers were indistinguishable from an armed robber. I guess Ms. MacDonald has been watching reruns of Al Pacino’s Scarface rather than reading Sudhir Vankatesh (or the Montclair SocioBlog).

Nor, apparently, has she been talking with conservative economists down the hall at the Manhattan Institute, for she also seems to think that locking up drug sellers reduces the total number of drug sellers in the neighborhood. This fantasy is not only contradicted by empirical research (and by common knowledge); it also runs counter to what would be predicted by principles free-market economics. Market forces bring new dealers to replace the ones the police have just swept off the street.

(Hat tip: Todd Krohn at The Power Elite and SocProf at Global Sociology.)

1 comment:

newsocprof said...

I found the conservative argument stupid for other reasons as well -- some kids are better off when some kinds of parents go to prison but crime type isn't terribly predictive of the differences. Still, if forced to choose who goes to prison and who stays in the neighborhood, I'd lay bets on the drug seller being able to also be a decent parent.

It's, as usual, much more complicated than any newspaper article could convey but this was a poor effort even in that context. Plus, I think you're right that the public is wise to the drug thing these days (at least here in CA).

On an unrelated note, I like that Wakefield had no affiliation in the piece so it reads as if she is some random person following disadvantaged kids around Chicago in her off-hours. I like to think of sociology happening this way...