Thanks largely to federal funds, Milwaukee County, WI, is prosecuting drug offenders at a record rate. Now a drug court judge there is starting to wonder why.
County prosecutors told the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal that the county's three drug courts will see 2,540 new cases filed this year, up 18% over last year and more than 50% higher than the 1997 figure. Although the Sentinel Journal played the reason for the increase in drug busts as something of a mystery, the paper itself noted the designation of the city as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) in 1998. Through HIDTA, some $4.5 million per year in federal funds are funneled into county drug enforcement and prosecutions.
After a guided tour of HIDTA facilities, the hometown paper explained: "In one room, intelligence officers from the National Guard process crime information. In another, enormous computer servers hum. In still another room, officers from departments throughout the southeastern corner of the state learn about interdicting drug shipments on freeways." Hmmm, one must wonder where those drug busts are coming from.
Although HIDTA members and prosecutors interviewed by the newspaper couldn't quite put their finger on the reason for the increase, at least one member of the Milwaukee drug war complex was pondering other questions. Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge John Franke told the Sentinel Journal he was dismayed by the volume of cases. "It's distressingly similar to what I saw before in terms of the nature of the defendants, the nature of the charges and the nature of the stories that we're hearing," Franke told the Sentinel Journal. "The anecdotal facts raise a question of whether we are accomplishing anything."
The veteran judge added that the "warlike atmosphere" present in some neighborhoods because of the black market drug traffic and police efforts to quash it imposes a variety of social costs. "There are extraordinary costs to the vigorous enforcement of our drug laws, both financial and social," Franke said. "We owe it to ourselves to make sure that we are accomplishing something that is worth the cost."
Among those costs are the huge expenditures for law enforcement and imprisonment, but also less easily measured effects such as the corrosive impact of aggressive drug war policing in poor neighborhoods, where "young people are growing up being frisked," he said. "Our efforts to curtail drug dealing have had a dramatic effect on Fourth Amendment rights and on the relationship between police and the community," Franke said. "The sense of confrontation between law enforcement officers and citizens in drug-trafficking areas is just one of the costs of the war on drugs."