Thursday, March 13, 2008


If you're called for jury duty, let the lawyers and judges know up
front that you're not going to send non-violent drug offenders to jail.

That provocative piece of advice comes from the creators of my
all-time favorite television show, "The Wire," which ended its
five-year run on HBO Sunday.

"If asked to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or
federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence
presented," the writers of the show declare in a recent Time magazine essay.

The essay is signed by David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter
who created the series; Ed Burns, a Baltimore cop-turned-teacher who
became Simon's co-creator; William F. Zorzi Jr., another former Sun
reporter (who also plays a Sun reporter named Bill Zorzi on the
show), and best-selling crime novelists Dennis Lehane, George
Pelecanos and Richard Price.

"Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or intended
violence are alleged, we will ... no longer tinker with the machinery
of the drug war," they write. "No longer can we collaborate with a
government that uses non-violent drug offenses to fill prisons with
its poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens."

Although I have some reservations, I've learned enough as an
urban-affairs journalist to know that they make a powerful and
persuasive argument. The war on drugs too often has become a war
against poor people.

That theme is being driven home with bracing clarity and authenticity
on "The Wire," which is more than a cop show. It's really about the
two Americas left behind to coexist uneasily in the social rubble
that departing factory jobs left behind.

Simon and Co. say they were moved to write by the show's fans who
became invested in the lives of characters like Bubbles, the junkie
struggling to get straight, and Dukie, the dropout outcast who slides
into junkiedom. We few, say the writers, we captivated few who made
up the series' loyal audience, flooded the writers with one question:
What can we do?

Having talked in recent months with almost all of the essay's
authors, I know how frustrating they have found that question to be.
Kids get killed, addicted or jailed. Politicians get elected. Lawyers
get rich. Jails get filled. The drug war goes on. Drug arrests soar
without a noticeable decline in drugs.

In Baltimore, Simon and Co. note, arrests for drugs have soared
during the last three decades while arrest rates for murders have
dropped by half. In other words, serious crimes against lives and
property are going unsolved in a system that encourages police to
spend time snatching minor drug arrests off the nearest corner.

Even former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, a former federal
prosecutor, suggested that decriminalization would cause fewer
problems than the drug war was causing. In that spirit, "The Wire"
writers advocate what Simon has called a "paper bag" approach to
minor offenders. In the real world of the streets, putting your beer
can in a paper bag frees the cops to look the other way and go after
more serious crooks instead of arresting you for illegally drinking in public.

With lawmakers unwilling or unable to repair the drug war's damage,
Simon and Co. invite juries to look the other way by exercising their
right to nullify a law they see as unjust or unwise.

Jury nullification dates back in English law to the Magna Carta. It
refers to a rendering of a verdict by a trial jury that refutes the
judge's instructions as to the law or its application in a particular
case. In a historic 1735 trial in the colony of New York, journalist
John Peter Zenger was acquitted of seditious libel against the royal governor.

If enough members of the public signal their disapproval of a law by
refusing to enforce it, they might bring about its repeal. That's a
happy thought, as long as it is not taken too far. As a rule, it
still is better to pass laws in legislatures than in courtrooms.

It is also a good idea, before releasing people for non-violent
offenses, to check to see whether they have histories as violent
offenders and tendencies to do it again. Many do.

Yet, there is much that we should do to help today's at-risk youth
and small-time criminals avoid becoming big-time criminals. For
example, we can support neighborhood programs, many of which are
church-based, that do a good job of putting kids on the right road.
After all, the one thing that is so unsettling about the wasted lives
portrayed on "The Wire" is our knowledge that they're not all fiction.

Newshawk: Kirk
Pubdate: Wed, 12 Mar 2008
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2008 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Clarence Page

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