The NYPD Arrest Slowdown: A Model to Be Lauded?

“Why are you still there?” I get asked all the time. Sometimes I wonder the same thing.

I’ve been a social worker in the Philadelphia criminal justice system for six years. Year after year I listen to my clients tell stories about how they got jammed up in our unfair, racially biased system.

A police officer planted drugs on them.

They were minding their own business and got swept up in a narc sting.

The court-appointed attorney railroaded them into a drug program even though they don’t even get high.

They were selling weed. So what? White kids at the university across town sell all the weed they want and never get booked.

Some clients claiming injustice have been vindicated, their cases suddenly withdrawn when the cop who arrested them proved to be dirty. Others have had to take it on the chin, because resisting means incarceration.

Reading the recent coverage of the New York Police Department work slowdown has been like watching a dream come to life: I work in courtrooms that are packed to the gills and have often imagined what it would look like if we just stopped arresting people for petty drug crimes, putting a halt to the plea-deal machine driven by the war on drugs and “broken windows” and “stop-and-frisk” policing that grinds away each day in New York, Philadelphia and many other US cities.

My pay sucks. Working conditions are miserable: gray municipal office spaces that are falling apart, stained with age and rodent-filled. Some people have told me that what I do—direct services, the trench-level stuff that even most social workers look to minimize their professional exposure to—is beneath someone with my academic background. Other people assume I lack ambition or have a fundamental dysfunction in my work ethic that has kept me pinned on the bottom rung of the social-service ladder.

But I assure you that it’s a choice to stay on in the guts of a machine that destroys lives, runs on racial bias and has never been more unpopular.

Worse, the kind of program I work for, a big-city drug-court program, has come increasingly under fire in the past five years by critics who would like to see them dismantled. Their argument—that the criminal justice system’s swallowing whole of the publicly funded addiction treatment system warps both systems’ purposes—has considerable merit. I’ve been told that by working for such a program I’m helping prevent reforms that could create a truly health-focused approach to treating substance use disorders.

Consider this: Despite reforms that have legalized or decriminalized possession of marijuana in various states and municipalities nationwide, there is, at this very moment somewhere in the City of Philadelphia, a police officer putting handcuffs on somebody for possessing drugs. While productive for marijuana users, drug policy reform hasn’t provided much relief for those arrested for using and selling other substances. Even Philadelphia’s decriminalization of under an ounce of marijuana has been resisted by local police, who say they must enforce the state constitution, which still holds that marijuana is illegal. It’s hard to imagine city law enforcement tolerating further decriminalization efforts in the near future.

Meanwhile drug arrests proceed. Of the thousands every month in Philadelphia alone, hundreds are referred as potentially eligible to the program I work for. Cops are still jumping out on kids on corners and putting them in cuffs.

The District Attorney’s office is still filing the charges and, in many controversial cases, trying to get some property out of it, too. Again, there have been recent gains in highlighting ethically questionable parts of the law enforcement apparatus, like civil asset forfeiture and the proliferation of warrior cops kitted out in military assault gear, but proposals for reform work along the margins of the issue, while in the neighborhoods where my clients live, the decades’ long cat-and-mouse drug war game between kids and cops remains in play.

So what happens to that kid in North Philly who was slow to run when the jump-outs came and who got splayed on the hood of a cop car and handcuffed for the first time after an officer rifled through his pockets and found a handful of crack rocks? Chances are he comes to me.

The first time I meet with a new client I make one thing very clear: This is about getting out of the criminal justice system and staying out. “How,” I ask, “do we keep you out of jail?” If they squander this opportunity, they will only move further into a system that is designed to destroy rather than restore them. The possibility that they will spend a lifetime returning from prison, pissing in cups, missing their kids grow up, standing in crowded waiting rooms for their turn to be openly disrespected by an abusive parole or probation officer who can send them back to jail for smoking marijuana is all too real.

Many clients need support to make it through the system. They have undiagnosed mental illnesses that come to light and require treatment to keep them out of contact with law enforcement. There are the chronically homeless young adults who fell out of foster care and hustled petty drugs rather than starve.

I’ve been to ICUs where clients have shown me the holes that bullets ripped in their bodies; I have walked with them through the painful recovery process while helping them keep their obligations to the court, thereby staving off a jail sentence.

Very few clients are initially interested in drug treatment despite that being part of their plea deal, and they’re required by the court to go. Nearly every client who meets with me for the first time asks if I can get them a job, and the answer is no, and certainly not one that pays a wage competitive with what drug corners pay.

One could argue, as I have, that we’ve mixed things up when we send people who don’t think they have drug problems but do think they have labor opportunity problems to drug treatment instead of a guaranteed job program. Why do we do that? Because that’s what’s available.

It’s also what’s politically palatable: Sending drug users to treatment as a compassionate alternative to jail has bipartisan support, but keeping drug dealers who also fit a broad definition of substance misuse in the community is much less so.

But we do need to do something, even if it’s not the most effective thing, to prevent these young guys from going to jail. There are 8,000 prisoners sitting in Philadelphia’s massive State Road correctional complex and more than 50,000 sitting in prisons across the state. The program I work for has at least prevented thousands of additional years in jail days served.

There is a broad consensus about our need to be smart rather than tough on crime, but what this looks like from county to county across the country still varies tremendously. Even today, depending on where you are, you are not guaranteed to catch a break on a drug arrest, and sometimes it’s a matter of a few miles in one direction or the other.

A client of mine was arrested recently just outside Philadelphia with a mere fraction of the amount of drugs that Philly allowed him for admission into my diversion program with, and the local DA demanded a sentence of up to 23 months in jail. These are real years, taken from a real person’s life, for no other reason than getting arrested on the wrong side of the county line.

So why am I still here? Because there is no greater joy to me than sitting on a stoop in the Badlands with a hustler kid who just caught his first case, is ambivalent about leaving the streets and knows the whole system is rigged against him, and then proceeding to work with him to find a way out of it.

Last week, the NYPD slowdown came to an end. Their machine of petty arrests and compelled plea deals will now rev back to life, the arrests picking up, the courtrooms filling up.

Progress was made this past year toward ending the war on drugs, and the brief respite from “broken windows” and “stop-and-frisk” created a lot of doubt in the public’s mind that racially biased quality-of-life policing is necessary. But even though rank-and-file police officers voice the same doubts, the mayor and police commissioner say it will continue.

The drug war won’t be over until police stop putting kids on corners in squad cars. “Broken windows” won’t end until police stop arresting people for the petty hustles they run to keep a roof and some food on the table. Until then I will be here, in the trenches of the criminal justice system.

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