Mandatory Sentences.


As someone who reads a lot of undergraduate writing, I’m all in favor of mandatory sentences.  Also, mandatory knowing the differences between the possessive and the plural.  Still, that’s not what most people mean.

What most people mean by “mandatory sentences” is an artifact of the violent and politically-polarized 1970s.[1]  Plagued with violence and the early stages of the now-failed “war on drugs,” Americans supported the passage of laws that took sentencing out of the hands of “bleeding heart liberal” judges.  The first of these appeared in liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller’s 1973 drug laws in New York state.  Although the laws were passed as a response to a heroin epidemic, anyone arrested in possession of 4 ounces of “narcotics” got 15 years in prison.  Other states followed suit, but the federal government held back.  Then, in 1982, Boston Celtics first-round pick Len Bias dropped dead of a coke overdose before he could play a single game.[2]  House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (D-Massachusetts) immediately pushed for and won a new federal law that mandated at least five years imprisonment for anyone found in possession of 5 grams of “crack” cocaine.[3]  Anyone convicted of involvement in a “continuing criminal enterprise” (i.e. a drug gang) caught a 20 year bit.

As a result, from the 1970s to today, America has gone from having 600,000 people in prison to having 2.4 million people in prison.  This is, purportedly, the highest per-capita imprisonment rate in the world.  Of those 2.4 million people in prison, 1.3 million are there for non-violent, drug-related crimes.  This costs taxpayers a lot of money: $80 billion a year.

The thing is, most (50+ percent) of the people involved in the drug trade are black.  Really?  Well, not necessarily.  Blacks are four times as likely as are whites to be arrested for possession of marijuana, and they usually catch a 20 percent longer sentence than do whites for the same charge.  That leaves the whole issue of white boys who deal drugs, but don’t get caught, or who get caught and are allowed to plead down.  Not that this happens in every case.[4]

How does imprisonment affect political participation?  About 7.7 percent of the adult African-American population is barred from voting because of having been convicted of a felony.[5]  If African-Americans constitute about 13.0-14.0 percent of the population, then the dis-franchised probably constitute about 1 percent of total potential voters.  That could be enough to swing a tight election.

[1] “Rethinking mandatory sentencing,” The Week, 20 September 2013, p. 11.

[2] The Boston Globe lobbied for Boston to be granted a supplemental draft pick because Bias had never been able to play for the Celtics.  The NBA wasn’t having it.

[3] See: Governor Earl Warren and Japanese  internment.


[5] “Noted,” The Week, 18 October 2013, p. 16.


The GWOD: The Global War on Drugs.

The War on Drugs has looked like a Stage IV Vietnam for a while now. Since 1998, the number of people smoking “dope” (as we called it in my Ute) or snorting “blow” (ditto) has increased by fifty percent.[1] The number using opiates has increased by 200 percent. All the while, the government of the United States has poured in money in an effort to defeat the drug trade. Apparently, it isn’t working very well. It may not be working at all.

A central pillar of the war on drugs has been to restrict the supply in order to push up price. That, it was anticipated, would reduce demand. So, Peru and Bolivia send out their makeshift armies to destroy the coca plants in the fields. Stateside, however, the price has hardly moved for twenty years. Why? Apparently, in part, because the cultivation of coca has expanded so much that troops can’t destroy all of it. Instead, the stable price reflects the ability of the drug cartels to force the peasant producers to bear the costs of crop eradication.[2] If soldiers destroy a mountain clearing of coca bushes, then the peasant farming them is ruined. Other fields remain undiscovered and untouched. This suggests that the drug cartels encourage the planting of as much as twice as much coca as they will need, then use the capture of up to half of the growers as a way both to discipline the growers and to toss a bone to the police.[3]

Then, the price for raw coca paid to the farmer is so low that it is a small share of the total cost of production of cocaine for sale on the street. Most of the additional costs are incurred inside the United States. Pushing up the cost of coca leaf, even by 100 percent, would only raise the price of cocaine on the street by an infinitesimal amount.[4]

In contrast, spending a dollar on drug education in the US reduces demand about twice as much as a dollar spent on reducing supply in South America, while addict treatment reduces it by a factor of ten. Still, when’s the last time you saw a movie where the hero wore a cardigan sweater instead of camo? (OK, Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting.”) Indeed, it is possible that marijuana legalization in a few Western states has done more damage to the drug cartels than has the DEA. Given that the cartels use their vast wealth to kill cops and to corrupt government, that’s a good thing.

This isn’t to argue that drugs are “good” for you. They aren’t, anymore that is alcohol, or tobacco, or going into a hospital.[5] All of which are legal, but regulated.

[1] Tom Wainwright, “If Economists Waged the Drug War,” WSJ, 20-21 February 2016.

[2] Apparently, in Economics, this is called “monopsony”: the ability of a single buyer to determine the price of a good without regard to normal market forces. “Monopoly” is the ability of a single seller to determine the price of a good without regard to normal market forces. Cool!

[3] To follow the Vietnam analogy, this amounts to faking the “body count” in order to meet the production targets. Odd to think of the US Army in the same terms as the Soviet economy, but there it is. On the other hand, one could follow the prostitution analogy. In the later 19th Century and afterword, city governments responded to prissy—generally female-headed– “Goo-Goo” moralist campaigns against vice by concentrating commercial sex in Red Light districts like the Tenderloin, the Combat Zone, and Storyville. Then they arrested, and fined or jailed, working girls and madams as a way of levying a tax on the industry and to render the workers docile. Ain’t capitalism swell?

[4] According to one calculation, by 40 cents on each $150 gram.

[5] Where you could—just imagining here—have nurses not read the chart of someone who had a Tram-flap reconstruction of a breast after a mastectomy and become angry that the patient has difficulty sitting up; or have someone come in for an infection, then leave a sponge in the wound, then leave another sponge in the wound after the patient had returned when the site blew up; or have a surgeon bolt from the operating room to his July 4th events without telling the family of the patient that she was going to die that night. I’m sure that this stuff never happens in real life.

Cautionary tales about gun control.

About 106,000 people a year get shot in the United States. About 31,000 die of their wounds and 75,000 survive.[1] The sufferings of the survivors is not much noticed in the media. About 58 percent of the gunshot fatalities are suicides. This is not much noticed in the media either. The vast majority of the rest are homicides.

Some gun owners will kill. How many? Well, fourteen thousand gun homicides in a country with 310 million firearms. OK, much more realistically, 14,000 gun homicides in a country with 100 million hand-guns. (Only a few hundred deaths result from “long guns” (rifles and shotguns).) Then, it’s a safe bet that some hand-guns are used in multiple homicides.[2] So, fewer than 14,000 guns from a stock of 100 million hand-guns are responsible for most homicides. I think that means 1.4 percent of hand-guns cause virtually all of the homicides. It is really difficult to build a case for general gun regulation from this evidence.

In the wake of the December 2012 school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, President Barack Obama made an impassioned plea for stricter gun regulations.[3] That plea brought no result from Congress. However, it did bring a response from gun-owners. Fearing that the government would limit gun-sales and demand registration of new purchases, gun-owners flocked to the stores to buy up all the guns and ammunition they could get their hands on. In the nature of a market economy, manufacturers responded by increasing production to meet demand. In 2009, American firearm manufacturers produced 5.6 million firearms. In 2013, they produced 10.9 million firearms. If one wants to be perverse about this, then it is possible to argue that President Obama’s efforts led to an additional 5 million guns sold.[4]

The “war on drugs” allows us to regard half the murder victims in the United States as criminals killed by other criminals. We can be effectively indifferent about these deaths. However, it is the “war on drugs” that turns all these Americans into “the enemy.” When is the last time you heard of someone killed in a quarrel over alcohol (which happened all the time during Prohibition)? When is the last time you heard about someone who died from a botched “back alley” abortion (which happened all the time before Row v. Wade and Planned parenthood)?

About 50 percent of all American homicide victims are African-Americans. However, 12.2 percent of the population is African-American. That means African-Americans get killed at four times their share of the population. In contrast, while use of the death penalty has dropped off sharply since it was re-instituted in 1977, 77 percent of those executed have been put to death for killing a white victim.[5] So, “Black Lives Matter,” but not to juries.

A majority (more than 50 percent) of mass murders happen when someone—almost always a man—wigs out and kills his estranged spouse or former spouse and her family.[6] The pre-occupation with random mass killings obscure this terrible truth. Getting guns away from people who have a restraining order against them is a necessary first step.

What is striking is that we can’t talk to each other about this complicated and painful subject.

[1] “Noted,” The Week, 15 May 2015, p. 16.

[2] See:

[3] See:

[4] “Noted,” The Week, 16 October 2015, p. 16.

[5] “Noted,” The Week, 16 May 2014, p. 18.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 25 July 2014, p. 14.

Digging deeper.

Sometimes, the investigation of one thing turns up evidence on something else. That’s one of the hazards—or pleasures—of historical research, journalism, and policing. That’s the case with the follow-on to a couple of recent traumatic events.

First, since the indictment of six Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray on 1 May 2015, Baltimore has suffered 55 murders.[1] That is twice the “normal” rate and the highest levels seen in the city since the very violent 1970s. Why the surge in homicides? African-American community leaders blame what amounts to a police strike since the indictment of the officers. The arrest rate dropped sharply. This alleged stand-down by the street cops “gave criminals space to operate.” This isn’t very credible as an explanation. Murder rates vary across months of the year, while the police presence remains basically stable. One kid living near a drug market told the New York Times that “Summertime: that’s when they do all the killing.” A more compelling explanation is the one offered by Baltimore police officials. During the riot in April 2015, 27 pharmacies were looted. Officials estimate that 175,000 doses of Oxycontin disappeared.[2] Oxycontin moves on the street for $30 a dose, so that’s $5.25 million of drugs that landed in the hands of dealers.[3] Because it was cost-free, it all represents pure profit after the distribution costs to the dealers. They key to profit, then, appears to be control of marketing outlets, rather than control over supply. That means a war for the corners and increased murders.

Second, the death of Eric Garner while being arrested in July 2014 reveals something about police-community interactions beyond the standard “broken relationship” trope.[4] In their longer-term context, police-community relations deteriorate when the community feels that it has been abandoned by the police to the criminals. Rebuilding that relationship requires the police to act effectively and to be seen to be acting effectively against crime. When William Bratton headed the New York Police Department (NYPD) in the 1990s, he introduced the “broken windows” strategy. This involved addressing the many small signs of social decay to clear away the underbrush that both shielded and could grow into serious crime. The NYPD also adopted a more analytical, statistics-based approach to targeting resources. Those approaches have remained in effect to this day. Crime rates have dropped dramatically, although people often contest claims that “broken windows” policing is responsible for the drop.

Tomkinsville Park on Staten Island had emerged as one area of statistical concern to police leaders. A little over half way through 2014, there had already been 696 calls to 911 about the area. There had also been 11 posts to the city’s hotline for complaints, called 311. Between March and June 2014, these reports had reached senior police commanders and the local commanders on Staten Island had been instructed to address the issue.

One of the 311 complaints came from Gjafer Gjeshbritaj, who owned an apartment building in the area. He complained of drug dealers hanging out in front of his building. His earlier efforts to disperse them had led to a physical confrontation. Moreover, Gjeshbitraj complained, the dealers used the people selling “loose” (illegal untaxed) cigarettes as cover for their own business.

This converged with the “broken windows” strategy and Mr. Gjeshbitraj belonged to the community of law-abiding citizens with whom the police were trying to build ties. Police visits to Tomkinsville Park increased and so did arrests, summonses, and warnings.

On 17 July 2014, a police lieutenant passing by noticed the crowd of cigarette sellers and others on the sidewalk near the park. He called the local precinct to tell them to send some men. All the rest followed.

[1] Richard Oppel, Jr., “Looking for Gains in Policing, Baltimore Finds Fewer Police,” NYT, 13 June 2015. Forty-two murders in May and 13 so far in June.

[2] I conjecture that large amounts of Sudafed disappeared as well. Following cultural stereotyping, I further conjecture that this all was unloaded to wholesalers in West Virginia and on the Eastern Shore.

[3] To get a sense of proportion, the Federal Government’s Small Business Administration announced a program to grant $1 million in small business loans in Baltimore following the riot. See:

[4] Al Baker, J. David Goodman, and Benjamin Mueller, “Beyond the Chokehold: The Unexplored Path to Eric Garner’s Death,” NYT, 14 June 2015.

The Special Forces Solution.

Many of the international problems confronting the United States these days seem both intractable and incomprehensible.[1] This is deeply frustrating for people living in a country with what is still the leading economy and the most powerful military—by far–in the world. There may be a sense that there is a solution at hand, if our leaders would just employ it.

You can see where this attitude comes from. In truth, the “armies” of many developing countries aren’t made up of real “soldiers.” They’re just “men with guns”[2] hired to prop up the regime in power. The collapse of large parts of the army of Iraq in Summer 2014 illustrates this point. In contrast, the Special Forces of Western nations are highly skilled and motivated. In the American popular imagination, SEALS, Rangers, and Delta Force troops are almost mythic heroes. People often are quick to point out that the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993 left 17 Americans dead, while the Somalis suffered 1,500 to 3,000 casualties.[3] If only we could lay the weight of our real advantage (elite troops, Precision-Guided Munitions (PGMs), drones) on the primitive enemy, they would be vanquished.

Recent war movies have epitomized this belief.[4] As one of the SEALS surrounded by Taliban says, “I think we’re in for one Hell of a gunfight.” However, all of these movies both built on and diverge from earlier, more cautious movies.

The movie “Clear and Present Danger” (1994, dir. Philip Noyce) asked what if the “war on drugs” was a real war? It answers that we wouldn’t fight it with cops and lawyers bound by legal forms and trials. An angry American president orders his National Security Adviser to launch a secret and illegal war on the cocaine cartels. An elite platoon recruited from Hispanic-American soldiers is inserted into Columbia. They begin to destroy drug labs and transport aircraft. They call in an airstrike against a meeting of cartel chiefs, leaving the building in ruins. The operation is aborted when a henchman of the surviving cartel chief discovers that it is Americans who are doing the killing—without a formal declaration of war. The National Security Adviser betrays the troops to save his own skin, but the remnants are rescued by men of honor. A series of clips begin at:

The movie “Tears of the Sun” (2003, dir. Antoine Fuqua) asked what if we had wanted to stop the Rwanda genocide? A squad of Navy SEALS is sent into Nigeria in the midst of revolution[5] to rescue an American-by-marriage doctor working in a do-gooder camp. She refuses to leave without her ambulatory patients, so the SEAL team commander (played by Bruce Willis) is forced to take them along. They are hunted through the forests and mountains by the rebels. Along the way, the Americans change their attitudes. Willis’s character says “I broke my own rule: I’ve started to give a fuck.” One of his men says they need to fight “For all the times we stood down or stood aside.” A series of fire-fights display American prowess, but the SEALs and refugees are finally saved by a belated airstrike.

Both movies are cautionary tales in which elite forces are never all of the answer.

[1] The same probably can be said about the domestic social and economic problems.

[2] See: “Men with Guns” (1997, dir. John Sayles).

[3] The movie about the event, “Black Hawk Down” (2001, dir. Ridley Scott), was a huge hit and remains very popular.

[4] See: “Lone Survivor” (2013, dir. Peter Berg); “American Sniper” (2014, dir. Clint Eastwood).

[5] Curiously, the trouble arises from a reheating of the quarrel with the southern Ibos, rather than the current war with northern Muslims. See: “The Dogs of War” (1980, dir. John Irvin), another example of my argument.

Legacies of the Violent Decades.

The 1970s and 1980s were violent decades.[1] The rate for all violent crime rose from about 500/100,000 people to almost 800 between 1975 and 1991. The robbery rate rose from about 200/100,000 people in 1975 to about 270 in 1991. The rate for aggravated assaults rose from about 230/100/000 people to about 450 in 1992. From 1975 through 1991 the murder rate bounced around between 8 and 10/100,000 people. In 1990 there were 2,245 homicides in New York City (five a day), and 474 homicides in Washington, DC (more than one a day).

State and federal governments lashed out against this spike in crime with the weapons at hand. The federal government directed billions of dollars to the states to increase the number of police and to build prisons to house the people the police caught. Sentences were lengthened for some crimes and mandatory minimums were imposed to limit the freedom of judges. Between the early 1970s and 2009 the number of people in state or federal prisons quadrupled to about 1.5 million people.

Then the rates of violent crime began to drop. The rate for all violent crime fell by 51 percent, to a level 25 percent below the 1975 rate. The rate for aggravated assault fell from its 1992 peak by 48 percent, roughly back to where it had been in 1975. The rate for robbery fell by from its 1991 peak by 60 percent, to a level 51 percent below the 1975 rate. The murder rate fell from its 1992 peak by 41 percent, to a level slightly below its 1975 rate. In 2014 there were 328 homicides in New York City (less than 1/day) and 104 homicides in Washington, DC (two/ week).

This remarkable change has begun to spark debate, just as did the remarkable spike in violence in America before 1990. One question is what has happened since 1990 to bring down the rate of violent crime? Experts are not entirely sure how to answer this question. They do agree on some things. First, targeted policing is a big part of the answer. New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton introduced the use of computer data and crime mapping (“CompStat”) to identify targets for police efforts.   Police began to concentrate their efforts on these identifiable trouble spots. Drugs used to be sold right out on the street. Aggressive policing pushed the sales in-doors. That didn’t do much to cut down on drug use, but it did make drive-by shootings a lot less lethal. The “broken windows” strategy came to be widely adopted. Second, tougher sentencing and mass incarceration played a lesser role than advocates expected.[2]

A second question is about what to do going forward? On the one hand, what is to be done with the large numbers of people still locked up from the previous decades? If they are released, will they just return to their old ways? Can people convicted of non-violent crimes be safely released and better served with drug-treatment programs? Going forward, should the length of sentences be reduced?

On the other hand, should the aggressive policing that accompanied the reduction in crime be scaled back? When crime rates are high and people are afraid, they are willing to tolerate aggressive forms of policy that they will not tolerate when crime rates are low and people feel secure. “Stop and frisk” has come under heavy fire. It has been argued that this kind of policing—which may have created the situation in which Eric Garner died—has begun to alienate law-abiding people in the communities on which the police focus. Can the police operate in an environment in which they are widely viewed as the enemy?

See: “The Senator from San Quentin”; “Military Police”; Death Wish.”

[1] Erik Eckholm, “With Crime Down, U.S. Faces Legacy of a Violent Age,” NYT, 14 January 2015.

[2] Which is not the same as saying that they played no role.

Bob Marley meets Adolf Hitler: Reggae.

When the Germans over-ran western Europe in summer 1940, the Americans took over the defense of a bunch of British possessions in the Americas: in the Bahamas, Guyana, the Leeward Islands, and southern Jamaica. Lonely American kids far from home brought American music with them. Later on, radio stations of the Armed Forces Network played American music all over the world. People with radios listened to that music. It wasn’t Lawrence Welk. In the Caribbean, people could hear both jazz and rhythm and blues.

Traditionally, Jamaicans had listened to live music, usually in dance-halls. After the Second World War, radio DJs and music promoters began running what were called “sound systems.” These were flat-bed trucks with generators, big speakers, and turntables. The idea was to roll into some poor neighborhood, began blasting music, draw a crowd, and sell goat-jerky and white lightning to the audience. This innovative approach to marketing soon won large audiences. The trouble was that it threatened to put the owners of dance-halls out of business. How to regain market share? They started hiring “rude boys” to go cause a ruckus at “sound system” street dances. Cut somebody’s face with a straight-razor, stuff like that. This made the dance halls seem somehow…safer. How were the “sound system” promoters going to regain market share? They hired their own “rude boys.” Rinse and repeat. So, Jamaican music started to acquire a certain association in some minds—those of the venue-owners, the performers, the audience, the “rude boys” themselves–with violence.

Then the Americans moved on to rock and roll, leaving R and B behind. Jamaicans didn’t like rock and roll as much as they liked R and B, so the “sound systems” started paying for original local music to record and play. “Duke” Reid opened the first Jamaican studio in 1959.

There is an interesting progression in Jamaican music. Mento is a kind of Jamaican folk music that developed in the 1940s and became very popular in the 1950s. It sounds like calypso to my ignorant ear, but purists insist there is a difference.   Mento emerged as dance-hall music that was popular with poor people. Hence, Marcus Brewer’s analysis of rap music applies to mento.[1] Ska then added influences from American jazz and rhythm and blues in the late 1950s. It replaced mento (without destroying it). It also spread to Britain, where it became popular with “mods” and later with “skinheads.” Rocksteady then emerged about 1966 as a slowed-down version of ska. By mid-1968 music had moved on yet again to reggae. Part of the explanation for this is the growing influence of Memphis and Detroit “soul” music. (See: Motown, Stax, and Atlantic Records.)  Reggae emerged from this line of succession in the late 1960s.

What’s distinctive about reggae? It’s the mood as much as anything else (I would argue). Partly, this comes from the emphasis on suffering and hardship in the wake of the failed hopes of the early Sixties. Partly, the simple chord progressions or—according to my technical advisor–smoking a lot of ganja encourage a meditative mood. Partly, many of its musicians and followers were Rastafaris whose faith explained past suffering and promised future redemption.

How did reggae get to the United States? The character “Pussy Galore” in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels was modeled on Blanche Lindo. Her son, Chris Blackwell (1959- ) founded Island Records in Jamaica in 1958, then moved it to Britain in 1962. Here he promoted Jamaican music for a British audience. He produced the movie “The Harder They Come” (1972) and the first Bob Marley and the Wailers album outside Jamaica “Catch a Fire” (1973). Eric Clapton covered “I Shot the Sheriff” (1974), introducing Marley to a huge American audience. The Wailers toured the US with Johnny Nash (1974), but got fired for being much more popular.

[1] “They’re pretty angry most of the time, but sometimes they just want to have sex.”–“About A Boy” (2002).