The Hidden Casualties of the War on Drugs

by Site Author

Alice Goffman, a sociologist, has a new book out, based on her experiences living in a disadvantaged neighborhood. She tells the following story.

Alex and his girlfriend, Donna, both age 22, drove to the hospital for the birth of their son. I got there a few hours after the baby was born, in time to see two police officers come into the room and arrest Alex. He had violated his parole a few months before by drinking alcohol and had a warrant out for his arrest. As an officer handcuffed him, Donna screamed and cried, and as they walked Alex away she got out of the bed and grabbed hold of him, moaning, ‘Please don’t take him away. Please I’ll take him down there myself tomorrow I swear, just let him stay with me tonight.’ The officers told me they had come to the hospital with a shooting victim who was in custody and, as was their custom, ran the names of the men on the visitors list. Alex came up as having a warrant out for a parole violation, so they arrested him along with two other men on the delivery room floor.

Policy scholars often talk about crime in terms of incentives. Sending criminals to jail prevents—and possibly, deters—crime. There is some evidence to support that view. In other words, there are benefits to each arrest. I, for one, wouldn’t want to live in a world in which burglars and murderers do not fear arrest.

At the same time, there are costs to each arrest. The government has to spend about $30,000 for each prisoner-year. Goffman’s work demonstrates other costs. Each outstanding warrant affects not only the defendant, but also their significant other, their family, and their community. Goffman’s work demonstrates what a criminal record does to lives that are already unstable. Men worry that a jilted lover will turn them into the police, and that having a steady place of work will just give the police a place to find them. Renters in Section 8 housing worry that, if a family member is arrested at home, they could be evicted. As a result, men on the run don’t hold steady jobs, and they worry about spending too much time with their family.

These people are the casualties of the War on Drugs. Usually, casualties of war drive public opinion against the war. But these casualties are hidden from view. They don’t vote, and the media doesn’t tell the rest of us about their lives.

We ought to subject the War on Drugs to the cold, hard calculus of cost-benefit analysis. But, when doing so, one has to acknowledge the full cost of incarceration. Goffman’s qualitative work is useful in describing that full cost.