Friday, July 13, 2007

Occam's Razor

I had an interesting conversation earlier this week with a reporter working on a story about prison and jail overcrowding in Nebraska. Essentially, she was expecting me to make the usual comments to the effect that the methamphetamine epidemic was at the root of bulging correctional institutions.

I couldn’t help her with that. I would probably be the odd man out on this topic in Nebraska law enforcement circles, but I’m not so sure methamphetamine is contributing to crime any more than other drugs. Basically, I don’t know, and I haven’t yet seen any data that would convince me to formulate a strong opinion. I tend to think that the same people addicted to methamphetamine would simply be addicted to something else if meth wasn’t relatively cheap and readily available. Maybe they would be committing their burglaries, thefts, and forgeries to support their addiction to some other drug.

Of all the controlled substances that have waxed and waned in popularity during my career, methamphetamine seems to me to have the most profoundly debilitating effects upon its abusers. This is some nasty stuff for chronic addicts. It is a leap, however, to conclude that it is the cause of increasing jail populations in my opinion. I’m open to being convinced otherwise, though. Often the conventional wisdom is right on, but sometimes it proves to be incorrect when put to the test (ask me about domestic assaults on holidays, or gas thefts when prices rise).

I pointed out something quite interesting and pretty obvious to the reporter: Arrests by Lincoln police officers are up—way up—during the past fifteen years. We’ve had a 58% increase in the sheer number of arrests since 1991. Last year's 28,523 arrests compares to 18,057 in 1991. Felonies are particularly dramatic--a 130% increase from 1,103 to 2,535. Although the vast majority of our arrests are for misdemeanors, and most eventually end up with a citation and arrest, the simple fact of 10,000 more arrests can't help but impact jail population through increased bookings, warrants, and sentences.

The increase in arrests doubles the increase in the number of police officers, and more than doubles population growth. This has occurred during a time period when crime in Lincoln has been falling. Lincoln's high water mark for crime was 1991, and the actual number of FBI Part I offenses last year was 12.6% lower last year than at the 1991 peak. Adjusted for population growth, the crime rate was 29.8% lower in 2006 than in 1991.

Huge increases in arrests during a period of moderate declines in crime is an interesting phenomenon. I can’t think of any way to explain it other than increased productivity by the women and men of this department. We’ve got hard-working police officers with a tough job in an undersized department who outperform any other police force I’ve been able to find.


foxspit said...

Excellent title for your post and an interesting perspective as well. I appreciate your candor and the numbers are interesting to consider.

Dick Dillon said...


I would concur with your conclusions that it could be unwise to jump on the bandwagon that so many seem to be travelling on, that meth is the scourge of the 21st Century (my term I know). I have been in the drug rehab field for over 25 years and have always been bemused by the need for a "drug du jour" for us to focus on. In my tenure, heroin, cocaine, tranquilizers, Oxycontin, quaalude, and even marijuana have had a turn. Interestingly, when I first came into the field, the drug we were most worried about as a country was >ta da< methamphetamine.

I heard a DEA agent say, 20 years ago, in relation to cocaine coming into the US that "we build 10 foot walls, and they build 12 foot ladders" alluding to the fact that as long as there is a market for drugs, there will be someone willing to harvest, process, produce and/or sell them.

Until the US realizes that providing treatment for less than 10% of the drug addicts in the country will never stop the problem, and until we treat substance use disorders as a public health concern and not primarily a law enforcement issue, we will be forced to live this foolish cycle over and over again.

Thanks for your insight and your clear conceptulaization of some very key issues!