A professor in the Beasley School of Law is researching the difference between what laws are intended to do and how they are actually carried out in the criminal justice system.
In the study, law professor Lauren Ouziel said the disconnect is especially clear in drug enforcement, which is the focus of her study. She spent eight years as a federal prosecutor in New York and Pennsylvania before entering academia.
“In the last few years … there was a lot of focus on the fact that we had enacted these drug laws,” Ouziel said. “We see in our federal prisons large numbers of lower-level, non-violent, first-time drug offenders, and these were never the people that anyone intended for the federal system to prioritize.”
Ouziel said drug enforcement is an important “window” to look at the politics of the criminal justice system, because it affects a large number of people.
According to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a little more than 46 percent of prisoners are drug offenders. The Department of Justice reported in 2015 that 76 percent of drug offenders are Black, Hispanic or Latino.
The study explains three reasons why drug enforcement misses its mark in lowering the frequency of drug sales.
First, the structure of drug trafficking organizations makes it difficult to convict the people leading the operation because the structure takes advantage of how drug enforcement works.
“You have this tremendously hierarchical system,” Ouziel said. “The higher you go up the chain, the more far away the people are from the actual product.”
That structure makes it easier for law enforcement to build cases against people at the bottom of the hierarchy because they are closer to the drugs than those who run the operations, she said.
Second-year law student Rita Burns said the arrest of lower-level drug offenders is a waste of resources.
“That’s not really who we’re trying to go after,” Burns said. “By putting these people in jail, you’re removing any chance that they’re going to be able to function well within society … Using our dollars to put these people in jail doesn’t make sense.”
The second reason is that law enforcement organizations are under pressure to meet quotas and to show success in order to receive funding. Many law enforcement organizations are judged for success by number of arrests, rather than how their efforts have actually lessened the local drug trades, Ouziel said.
Therefore, to demonstrate competence, a large number of low-level drug dealers are arrested, Ouziel said.
Finally, the relationship between federal and local law enforcement agencies doesn’t combine the resources of the federal government with the knowledge of local agencies. Though the drug trade is a mainly local issue, local politicians and enforcers look to the federal government “to do something, to respond to the problem,” Ouziel said. This puts pressure on the federal government, which doesn’t have the local knowledge to make the right arrests, she added.
Ouziel said many legal scholars say changing federal drug laws and shortening jail sentences is a solution, but she sees a more complicated problem: pressures within law enforcement organizations.
“You first have to answer the question of, ‘Why?’” Ouziel said. “Why are our results so different from what the law intended?”
In her research, Ouziel looked back at the original objectives of federal drug enforcement law which aimed to go after, “the worst of the worst.”
“When you’re spending time on prosecuting lower-level dealers that are not using violence, and these are first-time offenders, that’s money and time you’re spending that you’re not on other cases,” Ouziel said.
Ouziel said she drew on older research from the 1970s and ‘80s on how criminal justice systems operated, and tried to compare it to today’s criminal justice climate.
The completed research paper will be published in the Virginia Law Review in September, and Ouziel said she already started on another research paper that examines the politics of police reform.
Noah Tanen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.