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From New Orleans to Newark: How are We Going to End the Violence in Our Cities?

Our skyrocketing prison population alone should signal that the way we are dealing with crime is a failure. If it were successful, there would be fewer, not more, incarcerated people.
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Everyday we open the newspaper or turn on the TV we learn about the ever- increasing levels of death and destruction in Iraq. For those of us safely ensconced here, it's impossible to comprehend the violence and mayhem that Iraqi citizens are being forced to live with and survive. And while we may not be able to understand the dangerous terrain that Iraqis are forced to navigate - in part because it's so extreme, but also in part because it's so far from our shores - we should also be aware that many of our fellow citizens right here in the US face daily violence that is also unacceptable.

In Newark and New Orleans, the level of violence is rising as a result of the war here at home. Record numbers of people are being killed on the streets of these cities. One reason often attributed to the violence is drug killings. The most common response to violence, especially when it is related to drug dealing is to call for more police and often more jail cells. And despite how inviting, how sexy, a "tough on crime" approach sounds, it has yet to emerge as a policy that reduces violence and the suffering of everyday, hardworking people. Our skyrocketing prison population alone should signal that the way we are dealing with crime is a failure. If it were successful, there would be fewer, not more, incarcerated people; as we write this, the US now leads the entire world in the numbers of citizens it locks up. Why is this the case?

Our country has fought this war on drugs at home for 30 years, and for 30 years, drug prohibition and increased law enforcement have not made our streets safer nor rid our society of drugs. Rather, much like the days of Al Capone and alcohol prohibition, our policies on drugs have led to turf wars and murder.

So what should elected officials, community leaders and residents do to reduce the violence from the drug trade and reclaim their streets and families? We don't have all the answers, but there are a number of factors to consider so that we don't repeat the mistakes of the past and instead create a better way to heal our families and communities.

We have to create jobs if we don't want people to sell drugs.

A survey last year found that 50% of Black males in New York were unemployed. We have to create jobs that pay people a living wage so they can live with dignity. New York and most cities are incredibly expensive. It is easy to look down on people who sell drugs, but if we are serious about getting people to stop, we have to help create jobs so people can make a decent living doing something else.

There are many people who self medicate with legal and illegal drugs.

We are living in a time of war, global warming, increasing economic insecurity, rising unemployment, mass incarceration etc. Is it really a surprise that many people struggle with holding it all together and may end up self-medicating with drugs? People in New Orleans are dealing with trauma as a result of Katrina, on top of decades of neglect. We need to offer people compassion and treatment for those struggling with an addiction.

Treatment and Rehabilitation instead of Incarceration for People who use Drugs

We can spend a few thousand dollars a year offering someone treatment or we can pay 30,000 dollars a year to incarcerate them. We believe that the 30,000 dollars a year spent locking up someone in a cage could be better spent on treatment, education and job training. Currently we have a system that gives treatment to celebrities and the well-to-do and a jail cell for the poor.

The Drug War and Prohibition Create the Violence, not the Plants

Billions of dollars of government propaganda has told us that drugs are responsible for violence in our communities. In reality, it is prohibition and the drug war, not the substances that cause the violence we despise. When alcohol was illegal we had Al Capone and shoot-outs similar to the ones happening in our cities today. Now that alcohol is regulated, we don't have people shooting each other over Budweiser. It is not the marijuana or coca plant that causes people to shoot each other, but the fact that prohibition has made the plant worth more than gold that causes people to shoot each other over the right to sell it.

We have to learn how to live with Drugs, because they aren't going Anywhere.

Drugs have been around for a thousand years and they will be around for a thousand more. Despite a 40 billion dollar a year war on drugs, drugs are as plentiful as ever and can be found in every community in America. Elected officials have been afraid to look "soft on crime" so continue to offer up ineffective and inhumane drug war strategies that don't rid us off drugs, but do fill our prisons and morgues.

Time for an Exit Strategy from this Unwinnable War.

We need to pull together community leaders, treatment providers, law enforcement and elected officials to come together and find solutions to our drug problem that will allow us to reclaim our families and our streets. We need to put the resources that are going towards bombs in Iraq and prisons in the US to go towards treatment, education, and jobs here at home. It is time to open up the debate, including the forbidden topic of regulation as an alternative to prohibtion, so we can find an exit strategy from this unwinnable war.

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