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Shame Becomes Potent Weapon in Fighting Drug Crime

Join Together, September 28, 2006

(Wall Street Journal) Family and social pressure, not arrests, have been successful in fighting drug crime in one North Carolina community, the Wall Street Journal reported Sept. 27.

Police in High Point, N.C., spent months investigating drug dealers in the city's West End area. But rather than arresting and charging the crack dealers, investigators identified friends, family members, and mentors of the offenders and recruited them to intervene, offering a second chance rather than a near-certain prison term.

The idea is to use the soft pressure of the community to accomplish the same goals as the hard pressure of incarceration. Backers reason that rampant drug dealing in a neighborhood not only causes violence but lowers property values, giving the whole community -- including relatives of dealers -- an incentive to see the problem addressed.

In High Point, dealers were invited to the police station after the investigation ended, after a promise that they wouldn't be arrested. There, they met with community leaders who urged them to change their ways. Many of the alleged dealers were disinterested, but a second meeting with law-enforcement officials -- who laid out the case built against the dealers -- got their attention.

Since the meeting, the West End drug market has shut down and has not reopened in two years. Violent crime has fallen 25 percent. Drug use continues, but High Point officials say that the campaign is not a battle against drug use per se, but rather the street-level dealing that disrupts neighborhoods and causes crime.

Similar strategies have been successfully used in two other High Point neighborhoods, and cities like Winston-Salem, N.C., and Newburgh, N.Y., also are using the tactic. The National Urban League would like to see it implemented nationally. "It's the hottest thing in drug enforcement," said Mark A. R. Kleiman, a University of California, Los Angeles professor and drug expert.

Some police and prosecutors see the campaign as foolish. "Drug dealers are drug dealers," said Karen Richards, a county prosecutor in Fort Wayne, Ind. "They won't have an epiphany and end up as model citizens."

But some of the dealers in High Point said they were impressed when community leaders told them that while they disapproved of their actions, they cared about them as people. And dealers reported feeling shamed when their parents and relatives expressed disappointment about their livelihood.

Local police say that the campaign also has helped build trust in the community, with residents more willing to call police to report minor offenses. Some residents have even thanked police for giving their children a second chance.