If you're called for jury duty, let the lawyers and judges know up front that you're not going to send nonviolent drug offenders to jail.
That provocative piece of advice comes from the creators of my all-time favorite television show, "The Wire," which ended its five-year run on HBO last Sunday (March 9).
"If asked to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence presented," the writers declare in a Time magazine essay.
The essay is signed by David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who created the series; Ed Burns, a Baltimore cop-turned-schoolteacher who became Simon's co-creator; William F. Zorzi Jr., another former Sun reporter (who also plays a Sun reporter named "Bill Zorzi"); and best-selling crime novelists Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos and Richard Price.
"Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or intended violence are alleged, we will … no longer tinker with the machinery of the drug war," they write. "No longer can we collaborate with a government that uses nonviolent drug offenses to fill prisons with its poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens."
Although I have some reservations, I've learned enough as an urban affairs journalist to know that they make a powerful and persuasive argument. The war on drugs too often has become a war against poor people.
That theme is driven home with bracing clarity authenticity on "The Wire," which is more than a cop show. It's really about the two Americas left behind to coexist uneasily in the social rubble that departing factory jobs left behind.
Simon and Company say they were moved to write by the show's fans like me who became invested in the lives of characters like "Bubbles," the junkie struggling to get straight, and "Dukie," the dropout outcast who slides into junkiedom. We few, say the writers, we captivated few who made up their loyal audience flooded the writers with one question: What can we do?
Having talked in recent months ago with almost all of the essay's authors, I know how frustrating they have found that question to be. Kids get killed, addicted or jailed. Politicians get elected. Lawyers get rich. Jails get filled. The drug war goes on. Drug arrests soar without a noticeable decline in drugs.
In Baltimore, Simon and Company note, arrests for drugs have soared over the past three decades while arrest rates for murders have dropped in half. In other words, serious crimes against lives and property are going unsolved in a system that encourages police to spend time snatching cheap drug arrests off the nearest corner.
Even former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, a former federal prosecutor, suggested that decriminalization would cause fewer problems than the drug war was causing. In that spirit, the "Wire" writers advocate what Simon has called a "paper bag" approach to minor offenders. In the real world of the streets, putting your beer can in a paper bag frees the police to look the other way and go after more serious crooks instead of arresting you for illegally drinking in public.
With lawmakers unwilling or unable to repair the drug war's damage, Simon and Company invite juries to look the other way by exercise their right to nullify a law they see as unjust or unwise.
Jury nullification dates back in English law to the Magna Carta. It refers to a rendering of a verdict by a trial jury that refutes the judge's instructions as to the law or its application in a particular case. In a historic 1735 trial in the colony of New York, journalist John Peter Zenger was acquitted of seditious libel against the royal governor.
If enough members of the public signal their disapproval of a law by refusing to enforce it, they might bring about its repeal. That's a happy thought, as long as it is not taken too far. As a rule, it still is better to pass laws in legislatures than in courtrooms.
It is also a good idea, before releasing someone for a nonviolent offense, to check to see if they have histories as violent offenders and tendencies to do it again. Many often do.
And there is still a lot that we should do to help today's at-risk youth and small-time criminals avoid becoming big-time criminals. For example, we can find and support neighborhood programs, many of which are church-based, that do a good job of putting kids on the right road. After all, we find the young wasted lives that are portrayed on "The Wire" so unsettling because we know that they're based on real people.