The Myth of the Nonviolent Drug Offender

By Eric Siddall

The most repeated falsehood about the criminal justice system – that our prisons are stuffed with non-violent drug offenders – had a repeat airing in an editorial in the “newspaper of record,” the New York Times.

The use of the term “nonviolent” stirs up an image of some poor individual who is locked up for 20 years to life because he had a little baggy of cocaine. The image causes us to believe in the inherent unfairness of a system that relies too heavily on incarceration, and not enough on drug treatment programs.

The overwhelming majority of “nonviolent drug offenders” serving prison time are there because they were convicted of transporting or selling drugs. In other words, “nonviolent offender” is a polite and more politically palatable way of saying “drug dealer.” It is certainly harder to get the public worked up over the plight of drug dealers serving time. So here’s what the social engineers do: They follow the well-worn path of distorting the reality in order to affect public perception by changing the language used to describe the offender. Hence, they employ the “reformist” term that is less than truthful – “nonviolent” drug offender, a politically powerful skewing of the truth.

This term “nonviolent” is nothing but an Orwellian play on words. True, transporting and selling drugs are on its face nonviolent acts. But international cartels, terrorist organizations, and criminal street gangs thrive off of narcotics sales. If the editorial writers at the New York Times were to journey out of their newspaper high rise ivory tower and come down to a real-life housing development in Watts, for example, they could see the consequences of these “nonviolent” offenders.

The advocates behind mass prison release of criminals may be technically right that violence is not a necessary part of the actual act of transporting or selling. However, in actual practice the drug dealer or drug transporter is a willing and an integral part of an illegal enterprise that at its core relies on and promotes violence. Rival gangs in open warfare to control a drug corner for their dealers to operate and profit are hardly practicing a Gandhi-like movement of pacifism.

For example, take the gang that calls itself the Bounty Hunter Bloods. They control the territory of Nickerson Gardens – the largest housing development west of the Mississippi. During the 1980s, the Bounty Hunters controlled a good portion of the drug trade in South Central Los Angeles. They continue to be a dominant player in the crack cocaine trade.

For them to remain the dominate player in the drug trade in Nickerson Gardens they use violence to maintain control over their territory. Battling for turf and control and drug profits, they have been in open warfare with Grape Street Crips, amongst other gangs. The result has been a continuous bloodbath between these two gangs.  Their violence has claimed between 10 to 15 lives over the past five years. Even within the Bounty Hunters, there are internal feuds that are motivated by the profits of the drug trade-resulting in perhaps an additional ten murders over the same period. This does not include the countless shootings that erupt thanks to disputes involving drug dealers which result in people being maimed by gun violence.

Is mass incarceration the final answer? I don’t know what that really means. If it means sending criminals to prison for everything, the answer is No. Certainly, there are individuals who get caught up in the drug trade who are on the verge of being full-blown gang members, but are not quite there. Sending them to prison might be a mistake. It could cement their bond to the gang. Clearly, we should use probation for certain individuals. We should give first-time and second-time offenders, depending on their crime, a chance. However, to simply say that being a “drug dealer” is a nonviolent offense and, therefore, they should receive a shorter sentence or be quickly released back into the community, well, that is completely naive. There are collateral consequences to these crimes and too many of them result in violence.  The decision of what to do with a drug dealer needs to be made based on the history of the offender and the totality of the circumstances, not a misguided appellation or label of “nonviolent offender.”

It is easy for the social engineers and the moral conceptualists to write from the safe perch of the editorial pages of The New York Times about the release of “nonviolent” drug offenders. However, in the real world, where real people live, drug dealers are not “nonviolent offenders.” All too often drug dealers write the rules of their trade in blood that is spilled in communities such as Nickerson Gardens on a daily basis.

Eric Siddall is a Director with the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys.  The view and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ADDA, which represents nearly 1,000 Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys.

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