Academic journal article Albany Law Review

When Bad Things Happen to Good Intentions: The Development and Demise of a Task Force Examining the Drugs-Violence Interrelationship

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

When Bad Things Happen to Good Intentions: The Development and Demise of a Task Force Examining the Drugs-Violence Interrelationship

Article excerpt

Between 1994-1996, I was one of twenty-eight members of a Drugs [right arrow] Violence Task Force ("Task Force") created to report to the United States Sentencing Commission specific findings, conclusions, and recommendations concerning the interrelationship (if any) between drugs and violence.(1) The Task Force developed from the Sentencing Commission's first sponsored symposium in 1993 entitled Drugs and Violence in America.(2) The symposium was a success, but it left open many questions. Moreover, earlier task forces and commissions could not provide adequate answers; they focused either on drugs or violence and only rarely (and then, superficially) on the association between the two.(3) The Task Force constituted the first organized effort to study the drugs-violence interrelationship exclusively.(4)

This Essay discusses briefly the Task Force's goals, development, unreconciled conclusions and recommendations, as well as its ultimate demise. Much of the Essay's recount stems from the Task Force's Preliminary "Final" Report ("Final Report" or "Report")(5) which was never published and never agreed upon by all of the Task Force members. Attempts to gauge and unify Task Force members' views of the Final Report, particularly the Report's conclusions and recommendations, made clear the controversy of the subject matter.(6)

In general, much of the controversy concerning how to approach the drugs-violence problem reflects two conflicting and long-held views of drugs and crime: the criminal justice view, which emphasizes detecting and punishing drug offenders,(7) and the public health view, which advocates treating the drug addiction that leads some individuals to commit crime.(8) Traditionally, the criminal justice view is associated with a "tough on crime" attitude that attracts wide public appeal,(9) while the public health view is vulnerable to accusations of "coddling criminals."(10) Although now it appears that this tension between views may be lessening,(11) the conflict was alive and well during the years preceding the Task Force's development, and while its members were meeting. I believe the tension also contributed, in part, to the Task Force's ultimate demise and lack of consensus.

It is lamentable that the Task Force could not rise above its differences and complete an approved final report incorporating more thoroughly the varied expertise and backgrounds of its members: academics, researchers, government officials, politicians, and administrators. Then too, other factors interfered with this goal. For example, during the Task Force years, a number of individuals resigned from the Sentencing Commission and support for the Task Force waned along with the dwindling of the Commission's staff. At times I sensed unarticulated concerns that the Task Force's effort was simply too politically charged and uncomfortable.

Regardless of the disappointing outcome, however, the Task Force's Chair and members(12) deserve applause for even attempting to resolve such a politically heated topic. The Task Force's initial optimism and spirit were well founded: there had been much criticism of the drug laws, and there was a great need for change.(13) Moreover, recent trends seemingly support a number of the Final Report's proposals.(14) This change suggests that the Task Force's mix of goals and backgrounds is a preferred approach for understanding comprehensively the difficult and important problem of drugs and violence even though it may also hinder a clear group consensus.

Part I of this Essay presents briefly the Task Force's primary purpose and goals, most particularly, the study of the interrelationship between drugs and violence without presuming the nature, direction, or even existence of any sort of a causal link between the two.(15) Parts II(16) and III(17) examine, respectively, the Task Force's conclusions and recommendations, which span a very wide range. Part IV concludes that although some bad things happened to

the Task Force (its abrupt end and lack of unity), some good things happened too. …

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