One of the consequences of treating drug addiction as a crime rather than a public health problem is the damage done to many urban neighborhoods. Current policies have made drug dealing a profitable venture, so it is not surprising that people…
One of the consequences of treating drug addiction as a crime rather than a public health problem is the damage done to many urban neighborhoods. Current policies have made drug dealing a profitable venture, so it is not surprising that people in neighborhoods where profitable ventures are rare choose to deal drugs. Well-meaning public officials want to help reclaim those neighborhoods for law-abiding residents–a laudable goal. But like the drug war itself, these efforts can be misplaced. A case in point is the "Street Level Advocacy Initiative" of the Marion County Prosecutor’s office, recently praised in an Indianapolis Star editorial.
The program, according to the Star, works like this: If a drug arrest is made on rental property, the prosecutor "asks" the landlord to evict the person arrested. (The operative word here is "arrested"–not convicted.) The prosecutor is quoted as saying that most landlords co-operate with the program. He questioned the "sincerity" of landlords who would continue to rent property to "bad guys."
The effect of this involuntary displacement is to move the problem to a different neighborhood, which may make residents in the original neighborhood happy but otherwise does little or nothing for the general welfare. In order to accomplish even this dubious result, however, the program infringes on some fairly basic rights. One landlord felt it was wrong to punish tenants before they are found guilty. That is one valid concern. Of equal concern is the right of a landlord to be free of government interference with his rental contracts.
In fact, this program puts a landlord in an untenable position. If he complies with the prosecutor’s request and evicts a tenant, he risks substantial liability if the tenant is later acquitted of the charge, or the charge is dismissed. But even if the tenant is later found guilty of a drug-related offence, it should be the landlord’s decision whether the behavior alleged in any particular instance warrants evicting the tenant and losing the rent. If the offense is sufficiently serious, a conviction should supply the tenant with alternative quarters — in prison.
Of course, landlords can choose not to comply with the prosecutor’s request. But most of us share an understandable reluctance to defy a request from a public official. Our legal system depends, in large part, on that widespread desire to be good citizens, to assist with legitimate requests from those we elect. When prosecutors or others make requests that are not seen as legitimate, when they assume powers not within their legal mandate, citizen goodwill begins to erode.
And that is bad for everybody’s neighborhood.