Rewiring the System

The Wire's Ed Burns offers three solutions for the inner cities

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Ed Burns is co-creator of HBO's critically acclaimed series The Wire, which just concluded its fifth and final season, and co-producer of Generation Kill, a forthcoming HBO miniseries based on journalist Evan Wright's book about the first stages of the war in Iraq. Burns, a Vietnam veteran, is a former police officer and public school teacher. An outspoken critic of the drug war, the growth of prisons, and the structure, incentives, and organization of police departments, Burns listed three reforms that would improve the criminal justice system when he spoke with Reason in February.

1. End drug prohibition. "I'd definitely decriminalize drugs."

2. Change priorities. "We need to stop warehousing people in prisons. Nonviolent offenders should be let go. On the front end, we need to find ways to give these kids more opportunities so they can be competitive, so they aren't slinging dope on the corners."

3. Stop the numbers game. "If a big-time dealer is a '1,' and a low-level crack user is a '1,' who do you think is going to get the bulk of police attention? The easier guy. It's easy to hit the corners and round guys up. We should focus police attention on serious crimes, and stop measuring success by the number of guys we put in jail."


NEXT: The Politics of Projection

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  1. Damn, I so very much want to be positive about this list, but it struck me as so much chicken soup for the decriminalizer’s soul. I’m down with the ending of prohibition and cutting out prison time for nonviolent offenders, but what does “find ways to give these kids more opportunities” really mean to you? I can project (see the previous post by Jesse Walker) all my favorite ideas in there, but for the most part they are all old ideas that have had trivial impact.

    And wasn’t the weighting of criminals popular back in the Miami Vice days when they’d let hitmen and kneecappers walk in order to get the kingpins? Is that really an idea that we want to bring back to the fore?

    Nonetheless, thank you, Ed Burns, for weighing in here.

  2. Excellent point. I can’t think of any ideas on how to make lower class urban kids more competitive in the job market. I’m sure there are ways, but I don’t know what they are.
    Deportmexicans?

  3. …but what does “find ways to give these kids more opportunities” really mean to you?

    How about abolishing the minimum wage. If that’s too shocking for your sensibilities, how about abolishing it for those less than 25 years of age? Give them a stepping stool out of poverty instead of making them unemployable.

    How about instead of declaring poor neighborhoods blighted so you can tear them down, declare them enterprise zones instead. Remove or reduce taxation and regulation on businesses in enterprise zones.

    How about providing real school vouchers to those neighborhoods? Let’s allow our poor to be educated instead of force busing them to public school demilitarized zones.

  4. I can’t think of any ideas on how to make lower class urban kids more competitive in the job market.

    To some extent the problem is the opposite. Given the war on drugs, and the resulting black market, and the resulting high wages for illicit activity, it’s the job market that can’t compete.

    Why stock supermarket shelves at minimum wage plus, when you can distribute coke for ten times that or more, without paying FICA and the IRS?

    The resulting violence also runs business out of the area, further limiting the legitimate job market.

    And finally, prison records aren’t conducive to building persuasive resumes.

  5. Deportmexicans

    If you are gonna do it, do it right :

    DeportMexicans

  6. One way to make lower class urban kids more competitive in the job market is to exclude illegal immigrants from the domestic job market.

    But no one dares say, “Stop illegal immigration,” in Hollywood, not when all their hired help is here illegally.

  7. To some extent the problem is the opposite. Given the war on drugs, and the resulting black market, and the resulting high wages for illicit activity, it’s the job market that can’t compete.

    Why stock supermarket shelves at minimum wage plus, when you can distribute coke for ten times that or more, without paying FICA and the IRS?

    According to Freakanomics, the corner boys don’t make ten times minimum wage plus–in fact, they make less than minimum wage. It’s only a tiny percentage of drug dealers who make large amounts from the business. Claiming the supermarkets are competing against a drug trade that pays wages businesses can’t possibly match is like saying the supermarkets are competing against the NBA.

    Do you have information that suggests the Freakanomics analysis is incorrect?

    How about abolishing the minimum wage. If that’s too shocking for your sensibilities, how about abolishing it for those less than 25 years of age? Give them a stepping stool out of poverty instead of making them unemployable.

    I don’t think the mimimum wage is really a bar to employment in a significant number of cases. I work for a small business–less than 50 employees–that hires lots of entry-level workers. We pay several dollars over the NY state minimum wage (which is higher than the Federal minimum), and we have trouble finding workers who will show up every day. (At least half of our entry level employees are ex-offenders, so I’m sure we have several ex-drug dealers on staff.)

  8. …but what does “find ways to give these kids more opportunities” really mean to you

    How about teaching economics earlier so that young people realize that to make a decent living they have to offer something of value?

  9. One thing I’m not quite following… point one is to decriminalize drugs, the third regarding priorities seems to imply that it’s ok to go after the “big time dealers.”

    Query when does one become a big time dealer.

  10. parse,

    I haven’t read Freakonomics, but I’m interested in that analysis. Does the author really suggest that slinging drugs on a corner only nets a seller ~$6 an hour? This is strongly contradicted by the anecdotal evidence offered up by Simon and Burns in The Corner. At any rate, even if they did make a bit less than minimum wage it’s important to keep in mind the auxiliary benefits of being your own boss and setting your own hours. But I have a hard time believing that could be the case.

  11. Daniel,

    Decriminalizing drugs is different than legalization. Decriminalizing drugs usually means it’s okay to possess drugs for personal use, but drug dealing is steal illegal.

  12. I can’t wait to see the HBO series. I read the Wright book. I came away from it thinking that there still are tough as nails heroes in the military that make john wayne look like a pussy.

  13. Brandybuck | April 3, 2008, 4:06pm | #

    …but what does “find ways to give these kids more opportunities” really mean to you?

    How about abolishing the minimum wage.

    Right, I’d give up a life a stacking riches and fucking bitches for stacking dishes…at $4 and hour.

  14. Squashing the WOSD would have some effect on the prison population but it’s a widely held misconception that the majority of felons are dope-convicted. Including state prisons, the total prison population has only about 25% from drug offenses. A much greater number are there for crimes against property and violent crimes. Don’t want these guys on the street.

  15. a.c.

    I haven’t read ‘The Corner’ but the Freakonomics chapter and other books by the same guy (Sudhir Venkatesh) – one about the underground urband economy and the other called ‘gang leader for a day’ – does indeed show that ‘entry-level’ work is sometimes as low-paying and dangerous as hauling coal in a 19th c mine.

    And he does say what you did about why they still sling: the aux benefits.
    They get the respect of the peers, the (relative) power & prestige, and the hope that after paying your dues you can one day be a top dog yourself and get the big bucks.

    And I think “the Wire” illustrates this dynamic very well.

  16. I believe ending the WOSD would have a larger impact than Mr. Austin is stating. Crimes against property and violent crimes are often externalities of our prohibitionist policies.

  17. I haven’t read Freakonomics, but I’m interested in that analysis. Does the author really suggest that slinging drugs on a corner only nets a seller ~$6 an hour? This is strongly contradicted by the anecdotal evidence offered up by Simon and Burns in The Corner.

    For how long has watching TV trumpted academic research?

  18. Which article, exactly, are we discussing?

  19. I think libertarians tend to have a “abolish the minimum wage” fetish. It’s the right way to think, but the economic benefits are probably overstated. My thoughts/experiences are similar to what “parse” has said. As both an employee and employer I have never seen the minimum wage as an issue- because even the lowest paying jobs tend to pay well over minimum wage. I have never lived in a big city, either. My experience is limited to the Midwest and small-town Mid Atlantic. no NYC wages here, but no minimum wage either.

    I did make minimum wage once- when I was 14! Then I, uh, did a good job and got raises.

    Illegal( or other)immigration is not a factor either- as Mexicans are not stealing any jobs. In my experience they are more reliable employees who show-up ( and earn more than minimum wage) and outwork their American counterparts, both black AND white.

    When I worked in a restaurant we paid dishwashers around $2 over minimum wage ( in a low cost area as well). One summer we went through 11 dishwashers- all black males FWIW. Then we hired a Mexican guy who stuck around for 3 years. There were many similar situations. I’m not saying that to generalize a “black” work ethic- more an “American” ( at least of a certain generation) one. White employees weren’t any better.

    Many people don’t showup to work for well over minimum wage, let alone below it.

  20. I use the argument above for opposing minimum wage increases as well- it’s just not much of a factor.

  21. I’m tired of subsidizing the poor and war by paying taxes on my granola and wheat germ. Why do they get to sell crack and meth without one call from the IRS man? It sure does seem bass ackwards to me.

    Is this some government conspiracy?

    Politicians take money from pharmaceutical, alcohol & tobacco companies to keep pot, coke, etc. non-taxable. Drug dealers make money tax free. Law Enforcement asks for more money to put them in jail so we can spend more money to build more private prisons and feed them.

    I know I’m stupid, but somebody please explain.

  22. No-one here in Oz is having an easy time employing people for relatively menial jobs despite paying minimum wage or more. Surely part of the problem is competing against businesses or private employers who pay cash.

    re “aux benefits…they get the respect of the peers, the (relative) power & prestige, and the hope that after paying your dues you can one day be a top dog yourself and get the big bucks.”, Freakonomics and Venkatesh make it pretty clear that the power and prestige is about zero. Standing all day on a street corner waiting for cops or the protection racket or a drive-by is not a great job especially when you are earning near-nothing. And unfortunately for them there is a constant tension between the need to be visible (to promote sales) and to keep your head down (to stay out of trouble). There is indeed a powerful attraction in the rare possibility of becoming a gang leader but you need serious managerial and business skills (Venkatesh’s subject went, if I recall rightly, to grad school) which most pavement-pounders just don’t have.

  23. “Do you have information that suggests the Freakanomics analysis is incorrect?”

    what a strange statement!

  24. Damn, I wish in the big media there was the sort of reasoning expressed by many of you Reason readers above.

    Rhetorically, I ask, why are so few of us Americans libertarian when we’ve got the best, most productive and reasoned ideas for public policy?

  25. “Rhetorically, I ask, why are so few of us Americans libertarian when we’ve got the best, most productive and reasoned ideas for public policy?”

    I’m convinced that Libertarian ideals would require too much discipline to be widely accepted by the average American, who expects government to do more and more stuff for them, believes that Social Security is a great retirement plan and that a tax refund is free money.

  26. Drug dealing is just easier and you get to be more honest about your dealings with others. Sure it’s more dangerous, but think about all the crap one has to go through to find a job that is legal. Not to mention that one has less trite crap to deal with on the job. In drug dealing you can tell anoying customers where to go, hell you can even threaten them. Of course they can be just as much of a threat. The end result is in fact some form of civility in order to complete transactions that is based on….wait for it… mutual respect and understanding between men. Not saying that we all need to be that macho, but the option is far more appealing than having to listen to the D-bag who happens to be a customer or more often a manager.

  27. There are several people who are incredulous that low level dealers don’t make good money.

    In the first season of the Wire, there is one point where the high level guys think some of the street dealers are getting money from another source. They cut off all the street guys pay to see who still has money a week later. The manager of those guys says they won’t be happy not getting paid and the leader says “What are they going to do about it? Get a job?” Sounds like there wasn’t legit jobs to compete against the dealer jobs.

  28. decriminizing drugs is not only the ethical thing to do, it is the logical thing to do.

    it will change the face of drug crime almost overnite. marijuana could be taxed and distributed like cigarettes, as it already is in California for medical reasons. other drugs would have to be more closely monitored, like methadone clinics are now. but as soon as drugs are decriminalized or completely legalized, drug dealers lose their monopoly. the don’t make any money and so they go out of business. econ 101.

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