Using Positive Reinforcement to Reduce Drugs in Problem Areas


According to the FBI’s 2013 Uniform Crime Report, there were more than 1.5 million drug-related arrests in 2013—including 325 in Alabama—and nearly 100,000 people are currently serving time in federal prison for drug offenses. That statistic alone makes up almost half of the federal prison population.

The “War on Drugs” is not a new concept. In fact, that phrase was coined by President Nixon back in June 1971. What is new is the approach many law enforcement organizations are trying out in order to win this war. Brian McVeigh, the District Attorney for Calhoun and Cleburne counties in Alabama, was among those who knew they needed a different approach.

McVeigh recognizes his community has more low-income housing areas than most counties their size, and in particular, five to six hot spot areas with greater drug problems and drug trade. He spoke with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Birmingham (AL) about the problem and what his community could do. The U.S. Attorney’s Office recommended the Drug Market Intervention (DMI) training offered through the National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC), a project based at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. As a group, they worked through the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) to receive this training.

Changing the Strategy

Typically, those involved in drug-related events are arrested, tried, and, if convicted, serve time. However, many times drug offenders go back to the same circumstances they left—they do not have a way out of that life. The DMI training takes a different approach. Through the DMI training, the NNSC helps communities build partnerships with law enforcement, community members, and social service providers to address hot spot neighborhoods, gather evidence against those involved with drugs, build cases against those offenders, and conduct a sweep—but they do this all with a twist.

Instead of arresting and charging every single person, these community-based task forces go through the list of offenders and identify those who do not have a violent criminal history. Rather than arresting these offenders in the sweep, the task force holds an intervention and communicates a moral message from the community to end drug dealing and the chaos it brings. This message, combined with a warning that they will face legal consequences if drug dealing continues, becomes a powerful deterrent for offenders. In addition, the DMI strategy provides drug offenders with support to get on the right track and become productive members of society. They are given a second chance.

The team from Alabama met with the trainers from the NNSC to learn how they could implement the strategy in their community.

To start, McVeigh put together a working group that included Anniston Police Chief Shane Denham, community leader Marcus Dunn Sr. and some of his community volunteers, Sonny McMahan from the local housing authority, as well as social work program volunteers from Jacksonville State University. The group picked one hot spot area and spent weeks gathering evidence. They had a drug task force gather up cases, record video, and develop good, provable cases. By the end, they had approximately 80 solid cases.

The drug task force and the community-based working group went through the group of 80 and identified 10 individuals who were low-level, first-time offenders with whom they could work with and try to get on a better life track. During the sweep, while 70 individuals were being arrested, those 10 offenders were instead invited to a conversation over dinner. At the BBQ, those individuals were given the option of going to jail, or instead, working with the community leaders to stay on the straight and narrow, get out of the drug world, and become productive members of society.

“It is clear people [community leaders] are trying to address community problems and trying to make situations better,” McVeigh said. “All centered around a program we didn’t know was available.”

Nearly six months later, McVeigh says he could not be happier with the outcome. Six of the original 10 offenders either have jobs or are working towards obtaining their GEDs, and overall crime in the area—not just drug crime—dropped 24 percent. The program was such a success, that McVeigh says they are now planning to use the same approach in a second and third hot spot. The community-based working group plans to address all the counties’ hot spots within a couple of years.

McVeigh knows reducing crime and making a dent in the drug market is an admirable feat. “To see it come to fruition was amazing.”

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