The killing in Jasper of James Byrd, for example, prompted legislation to increase the punishment for certain hate crimes. Members of the Byrd family appeared before a subcommittee in Austin and the cameras turned out in droves. Did it occur to anyone that the killer of Byrd received the death penalty? Do we really need this additional legislation? Or does the passage of this law lead us to believe that somehow hate based on race will be less predominant because the government is now involved even farther?
But no reaction can be classified as knee jerk any more so than the legislative response to the problem of drugs. Cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, heroin, and marijuana have been illegal to possess for as long as I can remember. Everyone knows that jail or a prison term is a possible consequence for those crimes. Nevertheless, the drug problem continues to increase despite the number of laws we pile on the books.
Why? Government will never solve the problem of drugs.
Tonight, in all probability, a Wise County teenager will inject methamphetamine into his body. I suggest that we could pass a law requiring a mandatory 20 year sentence for that crime, and his actions would not be deterred. Criminal law is simply not the answer to this problem.
That hypothetical young man needs someone in his life that cares about him and who can provide him with a sense of hope for the future. If little Suzie wants to be a neurosurgeon, odds are she will steer clear of drugs because (1) a drug arrest doesn't exactly look good on the medical school application, (2) she realizes that she will need all of her faculties if she wishes to succeed academically, and (3) life is hard enough without taking unnecessary risks. The fact that drug use is a crime probably has little impact on her decision.
The key, of course, is that little Suzie has career goals that she has a real and earnest desire to obtain. On the other hand, if some other teenager has been raised in a home where he has been bombarded with the constant message that he's worthless and "won't amount to nothing" then he may very well seek an escape. Why not? What hope, in his mind, does he have? What is he risking? To him, not much.
But passing a law in Austin is easy. Let the video roll and cameras flash, and then let us all go back to our homes and shut the door with the expectation that government will solve the problem of drugs. It's not only ridiculous, it's the lazy way out.
If you know a young person who might experiment with drugs, do something about it. Make an effort. Get involved. Let him know there is at least one person he would disappoint if he fails to stay on the straight and narrow.
On the other hand, if you sit on the sidelines and that young man becomes another causality of the war on drugs, don't complain that the schools, the police, the sheriff, or the prosecutors aren't doing their job. The call of "why don't they do something" applies equally to you.
Barry Green is the District Attorney for the 271st Judicial District.