Special Interview with Ernie Drucker

JustPublics@365 Ernie Drucker
Ernest Drucker is an epidemiologist at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, a Scholar in Residence at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and author of the 2011 book, A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America. He is licensed as a Clinical Psychologist in NY State and conducts research in AIDS, drug policy, and prisons and is active in public health and human rights efforts in the US and abroad.



Can you share a little bit about how your research speaks to the issues of criminalization of public health?

Well, I’m an epidemiologist. It’s principally looking at the numbers independent of the individual experience. They tell a story in their own right basically because of how large they are, how big the disparities are between by race and ethnicity and how much of it is related to drugs.

How does criminalization and mass incarceration affected the lives of people in your research?

Well, it’s the fact that you’ve programmed a level of involvement in the criminal justice system into the lives of such a large portion especially the poor black male community of the United States that it’s almost like in a water supply and the nutriments that they get in the opposite direction of course.

The facts that are important here are that about 40% of young black men at this point can expect to be, if rates continued at the same rate, can expect to be in prison basically some time in their lifetime. The current figure is over 30%, about 35% but it’s going up. Even though the prison rates are going down, the probability of any individual being involved in this is so great.

The experience of Stop-and-Frisk in New York is a good example of the way the system reaches as it were and involves people in experiences that are based on an assumption that they’re involved in criminal activity reaching a peak of 700,000 stops-and-frisks in a year and a half ago in New York City. That, as an epidemiologist, who used to work on occupational and environmental health, we looked at people’s exposures to things like asbestos, mercury, toxins in the environment.

You can look at this as a toxin that’s very widespread in the African-American community of United States especially affecting young men who are most prone to be involved in behaviors like drugs, violence, being on the street that makes them vulnerable to getting picked up by the system.

Once they’re picked up by it, and so they’ve been infected. They carry it with them really pretty much their whole life because so much of that the structure of punishment, of mandatory sentences are connected up to what’s called predicate offenses – the idea that the first time you do something you make a probation for it. The next time you get a sentence, the next time you get a bigger sentence for exactly the same behavior. It’s a system that I imagine it’s deterring people but in fact that they reappear again and again shows that that’s not so.

What are your thoughts on policy approaches that draw from public health rather than criminal justice? Are there any examples of policy approaches that draw from public health rather than criminal justice? If so, do you think these are better or just reproduce the same systems of inequality?

Well, the policies in the criminal justice system don’t intentionally draw from public health. That’s not their model to that crime and punishment. One of the biggest contradictions or conflicts between the two models is that criminal justice model very much like medicine or a law enforcement is inherently on an individual basis, right? It’s about an individual who commits a crime. He gets charged, tried, convicted, acquitted, whatever but it’s a highly individual matter. In fact in the courts, sociological evidences are not really admissible as part of the discussion of the significance of an individual’s action. Therefore the individual case of crime and punishment is the unit of the criminal justice system.

The statistics that you do about populations in the throne of justice system are very similar to the ones that we do in public health-what could be done to help populations instead of individuals. What most of them don’t realize is that public health like medicine which is alive too is an interventional field. It’s like medicine. It’s involved in doing something about things. However these things that does that are not on the individual case basis but on the population affected. You reduce exposure to toxic fumes for everybody, not just people who get sick for a moment.

Try to apply that model to the criminal justice system is a stretch and needs an explanation because its’ engine, it’s the basis of decision making and justification is highly individual.

Now of course the intention behind it is exactly not individual, it’s societal, it’s collective. The idea of deterrents as referred for criminal penalties as opposed to deterrents for other people from doing bad things is inherently social. The effects although not examined that way usually are also very social. A guy goes to prison and leaves behind a family. That family is profoundly affected but what they do even public health for example that affect the mortality rate, the life expectancy and the achievement in college, the likelihood of going to prison. All those things are dramatically affected for the children of people who go to prison. It’s set in motion before they’re even old enough to commit a crime and get arrested.

That becomes the epidemic aspect of it, that’s how something is transmitted from generation to generation or passed from individual to individual by exposure the same way a coal miner coming home from the coal mines with coal dust on his clothes would make his child more likely to get lung disease. Likewise for a parent involved in criminal justice system in addition to the … I mean the fact of it is clear and the mechanism of it. It’s not the same as a physical exposure. It’s a psychic exposure, more in common with war and PTSD and trauma than it has in common with physical exposure to toxins but yeah, it does act as toxin.

We have a concept now that’s gaining. Currency about toxic stress actually comes out of pediatrics and developmental studies. Children, the idea that levels of abuse in a family that go on over time-living with an uncle that sexually abuses a little girl who keeps quiet about it. The stress of that builds overtime. No doubt there’s damage and that’s being recognized now.

The same thing with this large rate of criminal justice involvement – arrest, prison time, coming out with a stigma, going back in again – its relation to other criminal activities that aren’t inherently, drug use especially, it’s not the same as natural, the things that everyone agrees that are bad and shouldn’t do them, like assault, rape, kidnapping. Everybody agrees that those are things people shouldn’t do and you want laws against doing it. You want to enforce those laws.

The issue of punishment is a separate one but the idea of criminalization and why criminalization takes the form that it does is a very good question. We are obviously in a period now of criminalization amongst everything. About 35% of all Americans have a criminal record at this point.

The last question I have is a major focus of the just publics at 365 Project is bringing together academics, activists and journalists in ways that promote social justice, civic engagement and greater democracy. What sort of lessons learned do you have from your experience with your research about academics entering a terrain more frequently trialed by activists and journalists?

Well, academics have been involved in criminology forever. They’ve invented it but the more critical issue now is in the current world where you have ideas you want to have a voice in public policy and be understood by the general public are very important. You run up against, in terms of the way in which academics and journalists can play a role in public attitudes, literacy and ultimately support for or antagonism to new policies directly relates to what you’re talking about in just publics, and that is the development of public literacy, public understanding, public attitudes and not leave that to Fox News. The people who exploit to either gain attention, which is certainly true in politics like the tough-on-crime posture, is not particularly interested in statistics or outcomes because it’s another tool of promoting political careers and staking out of a place has become a mainstay of political strategies now. Anybody who doesn’t take that road get slammed by their opponents and so stays away from it. You haven’t heard a word about drugs and drug sentencing, drug regularization laws which are going on in the country. You haven’t heard a word about that in any political campaign in recent years, I haven’t at least. What was once upfront and can fit the most important issue even a dozen years ago isn’t there anymore because they recognize that there’s a lot of politicians, that there’s a lot of change in attitudes about drug recently, about drug laws, drug legalization now, a lot of legalizations now supported by 58% of adult population. You have legalizations in two states, Colorado and Washington for marijuana and other states doing a similar thing now. You can begin to see a crumbling on the war of drugs which has been the mighty engine that has driven massive incarceration but it will take its place in the immigration, immigration consulates and again the same thing again with the politicization of that discussion at the expense of immigrants who built this country with their hands, 400,000 deep rotations last year, a whole private industry. It’s imprisoning these people and transporting them. Sex offense is another growing issue of criminalization – watching porn on the internet. It can get you entrapped into major prison time. The financial crimes, not the Burney Maddox things but the small things like child support which fairly connects with child support. This is often built into the release arrangements, parole of people coming out of prison who are piling up to pay child support would come out of prison unable to earn any money certainly to pay back those debts. That becomes an example of something that’s set up to feed the criminal justice and prison system, which is going down from the drop in drug enforcement and drug arrest which is sad even though drugs are doing fine in America, methamphetamine trade especially. There isn’t the same appetite for pursuing it as there was. It becomes less of an issue in creating a prison population versus other things – immigration and financial crimes and sex offenses take its place.

Could you tell me about your work in harm reduction and, more broadly, organizations that have a desire to shift from a criminalization modality to a public health modality?

Harm reduction you asked about organization that have arisen, have a desire to change this model from criminal to public health. We have an organization called From Punishment to Public Health which is a collaboration of John Jay The City University, you guys, the Columbia School of Public Health, NYU School of Medicine and other departments on these institutions focusing on the issues for New York City that sit at the intersection of public health and criminal justice, things like domestic violence, drug overdoses, violence of all sorts actually done especially.

You really have to extend some effort to separate the public health view of something like gun violence from the criminal view of it, because the numbers and so even though they have a much lower than this, they’re still very substantial. You can’t pick up a paper in New York or Chicago. How do they know Los Angeles without review of awful shooting that destroyed people’s lives. When you count those up they become the major source of death and injury for many young adults and not to mention all the bystanders who get hit.
In the face of the politics of guns in United States and the NIH, it’s suppression of exactly public health research. The NIH managed to get the freeze on the CDC’s ability to do gun research going back to back 10 years, because when you look for the answers to these things, the question is like how many are affected, who, what makes a difference, what time of day – all those stuff is very hard to find because it allowed to be funded by CDC or NIH in the last decade. That’s changing now I think on the new machines that are coming in but there’s a real vacuum here. But that’s a natural place for public health methods looking at the angry kid effects, making maps looking at risk by age and location and gender. All are very, very powerful tools that in fact make a lot of sense for looking at criminal justice issues through a public health lens.

The harm reduction, how it relates to drugs and a view of accepting the fact that drug use is pretty universal. Always has been, always will be. That our goals have to be to reduce the consequences especially, those related to violence. More and more countries are thinking about drug policy in these terms.

Now, all the policy creates this violence. The most dramatic cases being those near us, in sexual marriage in Mexico, which is a huge epidemic of violence associated with the drug business to sell products that are essentially almost worthless. They are very worthless but free. The efforts to bring these drugs: cocaine, marijuana, heroin into the American market are associated with 60,000 murders in Mexico over the last 5, 6 years.

Talk about outsourcing. This is a problem that was in the United States at the time of the peak of the war on drugs in the 80s crack wars when between the start of the war on drugs in the 70s and the decline in crime in the 90s in the 20-year-period, there were 200,000 extra homicides compared to the 10 years before and the 10 years since when the enforcement and the violence associated with drug enforcement in the United States diminished dramatically but moved over to Mexico into the supply side and the local markets.

A wonderful film called The House I Live In by Jarecki which is really, does a very good job of telling the whole story but especially depicting the level of violence of drug enforcement in this period and the exposure to that of so many people. That’s was the mechanism that built the prison population and once you’re in it, you stay in it one way or another, reset in the prison, re-entry and all that.