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Have the cops gotten too good at catching criminals?

Alex Wong

Speaking about the situation in Ferguson earlier this week, President Obama offered — among other things — a touch of triangulation. "There are young black men that commit crime," he said, and regardless of why we think that happens "if they commit a crime, then they need to be prosecuted because every community has an interest in public safety."

It sounds like common sense. But a fascinating article by Malcolm Gladwell in the August 11 issue of The New Yorker on the "crooked ladder" of upward mobility challenges the notion. In a world where lots of non-violent activity is illegal, does it really make sense to yearn for perfect law enforcement?

Gladwell's essay, which does not reference Ferguson in any way, is a dual review of two books. One is Francis Ianni's 1972 A Family Business: Kinship and Social Control in Organized Crime about the mafia, and the other is Alice Goffman's new On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City about crime in inner-city Philadelphia. Gladwell's argument is that organized crime used to offer a "crooked ladder" that families would climb. Money obtained through criminal activity would be laundered into legitimate businesses, and then over the generations respectability-seeking families would simply run legit businesses or send their kids to college to become doctors and lawyers. But the "war on drugs," though not particularly effective in preventing addicts from using drugs, has been very effective at making it hard for people involved in street-level drug dealing to amass the financial and social capital necessary to climb the crooked ladder.

In other words, his argument is that it might be better if it were easier to evade punishment for crime.

That might sound crazy. But think about the man who said that criminals should be prosecuted. Obama was part of a self-described Choom Gang in high school and has admitted to doing "maybe a little blow" in his day. And it seems to me that it's a great thing for the country that he was never prosecuted for those offenses, just as I'm really glad that I was never prosecuted for those offenses. Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a brilliant essay on August 19th about the time white privilege let him beat an assault rap, after he got into a drunken altercation with a Latino guy.

The leniency he received in circumstances when the police might not have been so kind to a person of color is unfair. By the same token, it's not fair that the Choom Gang was tolerated when a similar informal youth organization in a poor black neighborhood might not have been. But in both cases, resolving the unfairness by bringing down the hammer on Obama or Seitz would be pursuing equality in the wrong direction. More people deserve to benefit from that kind of leniency, not fewer.

Gladwell's broader point is that turning a blind eye to non-violent crime seemed to serve America well for generations. We abandoned that strategy in the seventies amidst a boom in violent crime. But that boom's been receding for about 25 years now, and there's no real reason to think that mass arrests of street-level drug dealers is an important part of the reason why. Maybe it's time to reconsider?