The Points Interview: Kerwin Kaye

Editor’s Note: Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Dr. Kerwin Kaye, an Associate Professor of Sociology, American Studies, and Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University. Dr. Kaye’s new book, Enforcing Freedom: Drug Courts, Therapeutic Communities, and the Intimacies of the State, was released this month by Columbia University Press. He also writes about issues pertaining to male sex work. He currently lives in New York City. 

Screenshot 2019-12-12 08.49.32Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

In Enforcing Freedom I take a close look at drug courts – courts that offer court-supervised drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration for drug-related crimes – and the nature of the treatment programs they rely upon. Drug courts have often been touted as an alternative to racialized mass incarceration, and certainly the idea of treatment instead of incarceration has a lot of appeal to many people.

My research shows that they have a more problematic impact than is at first apparent. The good is that anyone who completes treatment as part of drug court will have the charge removed from their record – that’s a good deal. The bad is that only about 50% succeed at drug court while the other half fails. Even worse, most courts require participants to plead guilty prior to participating in the court, meaning that the half that fails has no opportunity to strike a plea bargain – they plead guilty to the most serious charges that can be leveled at them. So after failing at treatment – how does one fail at treatment? does not treatment fail you? – this half gets sentenced to incarceration times that are significantly longer than they would have received if they had been able to strike a plea bargain.

In other words, drug courts actually intensify the war on drugs for half of the population, even as they mitigate it for the half that succeeds. And unsurprisingly, the half that fails is disproportionately black and disproportionately impoverished. So rather than entirely mitigating racialized mass incarceration, drug courts act as a sorting mechanism, escalating and aggravating social exclusions for precisely those populations that most need relief.

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Many Scholars Think Drug Courts Harm Policy Reform, Not Vice Versa

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Sarah Brady Siff, visiting assistant professor of journalism at Miami University in Ohio. Enjoy!

The current so-called opioid epidemic has placed an urgent frame around drug-related policy debates in Ohio. Here, the current midterm election ballot includes Issue 1, a state constitutional amendment that would convert level 4 and 5 drug felonies—charges for possession and use of drugs—into misdemeanors, somewhat like California’s Proposition 47 in 2014. Ohio would be only the sixth state to take similar measures to reduce drug-related mass incarceration.

So Issue 1 was much on the minds and lips of panelists at “Facing Opioids: Drug Enforcement & Health Policy in Today’s Epidemic,” an Oct. 19 symposium at The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. I appreciated the chance to listen to legal experts in criminal justice and public health talk about Issue 1, drug courts, harm reduction, and other topics related to Ohio’s very high rate of overdose deaths.

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