U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles is testing out a novel approach to dealing with drug-related crime, one that aims to clean up the streets by looking beyond mass arrests and incarceration.
“What I want to do is to make the people’s lives who are law-abiding citizens in this community better,” Nettles said. “Incarceration is no longer the goal, but is one of many tools available to allow you to effect your goal of improving their lives. It represents a fundamental shift, a seismic shift in terms of how you’re viewing what you’re doing.”
“When you declare a ‘war on drugs,’ the community sees the cops as the occupiers, and the cops see the people in the community as enemy combatants,” Nettles said. “Well, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.”
If implemented nationwide, the initiative could be a major success. Nettles’ plan is surprisingly straightforward. First, federal and local prosecutors identify local drug dealers with the help of the police, probation officers and community members. Next, they build criminal cases against them by reviewing records for outstanding warrants and conducting undercover drug buys. In most cases, arresting all the dealers would be the next order of business, but Nettles has a different idea.
While high-level dealers are still arrested and prosecuted, some low-level offenders are given another option. For them, Nettles stages something of an intervention. Together with the police, family members, religious leaders and other members of the community, prosecutors present the dealers with the evidence against them and give them a choice: Face the prospect of prison or participate in the pilot project.
Only certain low-level offenders, those with limited criminal histories and no violent crimes in their past, are given the opportunity to avoid prison. they are monitored for a period of time, typically more than a year, to make sure they remain law-abiding citizens. If they do, they will remain free of the criminal justice system. Until they complete the program, however, the threat of arrest based on the evidence already collected continues to hang over their heads.
If officials receive complaints about anyone involved in the program, a judge can sign off on an already prepared arrest warrant.
“Basically we go and tell them, ‘Go and sin no more.’ If this community calls and says you’re back at it, you’re gonna be arrested,” said Richardson, the Horry County prosecutor.