Senseless killings: a déjà vu scene

It’s all so familiar: Senseless shootings in those area of Dorchester where the most vulnerable live. Will it ever end or are the poor condemned to live in fear on the streets where danger seems ever present?

I was a judge in Dorchester District Court from the early ‘70s to the early ‘90s. For 20 years I witnessed the consequences of violence, ignited first be forced busing and then by the drug epidemic.

It was particularly violent during the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, before the “Boston Miracle” heralded a reduction. While the police, local ministers, street workers, and the courts played a significant role in a dramatic reduction of the murder rate, the effort was helped in no small part by demographics. There was a sharp drop in the number of young people in the age group that generates so much violence.
Drug dealing provides the money that puts guns into the hands of immature young people who, in order to protect their income, are willing to kill competitors. Every business is regulated, this one by participants who use guns to control the market.

Starkly put, the drug trade is managed over the bodies of young minority men with occasional collateral damage to others. Guns provide status, power, and the means to also “resolve” other real or imagined grievances in the neighborhood.

So long as the violence is confined to the city’s mean streets, it registers only briefly on those who live safely elsewhere. Yes, it was terrible and they were appalled, but the mayhem did not pose a direct threat to their safety or peace of mind.

As can be seen in Mexico, there are two drug wars. The most violent is the one between the drug dealers themselves. A second, less-intense conflict exists between the dealers and law enforcement agencies seeking to control the problem.

I have long believed that as long as there is money to be made, there will be people, often desperate, who will be willing to assume the risks necessary for a share of the profits. It is another war we cannot win.

The situation calls for a change in strategy – eliminate the profits. Decriminalize drugs and make them available free to those who cannot afford them. That is not to say we encourage drug use; quite the contrary. Use the money we now spend on the War on Drugs to educate people to the danger of drug use.

Treat it first and foremost as a public health problem. Look what we have been able to achieve through the campaign to discourage smoking. Imagine what we could achieve if half the enforcement money was spent on educating school children about the damaging effects of drugs.

The other half could be used to encourage treatment and provide free drug rehabilitation programs for those wishing to kick the habit. When you consider the consequences of the present strategy – murder and mayhem with little success in stemming the flow of drugs – the public health alternative could hardly make it worse.

Short of a dramatic change in our drug policy, I see little likelihood that the well-intentioned efforts of those concerned with this problem will achieve anything but limited, short-term success.
Even our strict gun laws have failed. On the street, a gun is more than a weapon; it is a cultural symbol of dominance, a way to express anger and rage, a trap for the unwise and unwary, and a threat to the vulnerable.

If I had a choice between making drugs or handguns illegal, I would eliminate handguns. Since that is not going to happen, by eradicating drug profits, we can at least reduce the funds used to purchase handguns and a reason to possess them.

Without a major policy change, I fear the senseless killing will continue.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.