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Philly’s Plan to End Open-Air Drug Market Part of Larger Crime Crackdown

Earlier this month, Mayor Cherelle Parker announced her administration’s plan to end the Kensington neighborhood’s open-air drug markets by arresting people for low-level offenses that the city hadn’t targeted in years.

It wasn't that long ago that the mayor of Philadelphia wanted to open a supervised drug consumption site and City Council was passing legislation to make it harder for police to arrest people for nonviolent crimes.

But along with a new class of leaders, the political tenor in the deeply Democratic city has decidedly shifted.

City Council last year passed legislation effectively banning supervised drug consumption sites — where clinicians oversee people using drugs and revive them if they overdose — in most of the city.

New Mayor Cherelle L. Parker, who ran for office while embracing stop-and-frisk and opposing drug consumption sites, won election handily. Since taking office in January, she's solidified her rejection of some progressive approaches to drug policy, announcing that the city will no longer fund services that provide people with tools for safer drug use.

And earlier this month, Parker unveiled her administration's much anticipated strategy to end the sprawling open-air drug market in the city's Kensington neighborhood, where hundreds of people — many of them in addiction — are homeless. Her plan includes arresting people for such low-level offenses as drug possession and prostitution, crimes the city hasn't targeted in years.

Philadelphia is far from alone in being a blue jurisdiction taking a more law-enforcement-heavy approach to public safety and drug policy, compared with just a few years ago in the aftermath of the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, which ushered in a wave of progressive policymaking and criminal justice reform.

Some are shifts in strategy that make law enforcement more visible. Others are legislative adjustments to clamp down on drug use.

For example, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, has overseen a strategy to increase enforcement of lower-level crimes. Earlier this year, New York Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul ordered the National Guard to patrol New York City subways amid a spate of high-profile incidents.

In March, San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure that requires recipients of county welfare to undergo drug screening and enroll in treatment to continue receiving aid — a concept the GOP has advocated for decades — and another one that relaxes restrictions on police powers.

The same month, lawmakers in Washington, D.C. adopted a crime bill that imposes tougher penalties on people convicted of gun crimes, expands punishment for "organized" retail theft, and revives a 1990s law that grants police more authority to stop people they suspect are using drugs in certain zones.

And perhaps the greatest example of a reversal on progressive policy was in Oregon, where earlier this month the governor signed legislation recriminalizing the possession of such drugs as heroin and cocaine just three years after the state became the first to decriminalize it.

Experts and activists see Parker's approach as part of the larger trend. But there's intense disagreement over whether her strategy can be effective in achieving her goal of ending the drug market while still treating people in addiction with compassion.

Kris Henderson, executive director of the Amistad Law Project, a law firm that has advocated for public safety approaches outside law enforcement, said Parker's strategy represents a return to "war on drugs" policymaking that emphasizes policing over public health.

"It feels very reminiscent of the '90s and the aughts, this idea that if you lock everybody up, things are going to change," Henderson said. "When people are cycling in and out of jail, their lives are more unstable. It's not going to make anything better."

But Rafael A. Mangual, head of research for policing and public safety at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, said more progressive approaches to addressing drugs — such as avoiding arresting people in addiction for using illegal drugs — has led to "a massive decline in public order." In Philadelphia, arrests for drug possession have sharply declined over the last decade.

"Drive up and down Kensington Avenue and you tell me how these individuals are better off," Mangual said. "How is it compassionate? People are overdosing on a regular basis. You're not actually helping the people who are struggling. They're not better off."

Parker has pledged that her approach to public safety, especially in Kensington, will blend law enforcement with public health. She says often that her strategy is three-pronged — prevention, intervention, and enforcement — and that she wants people in addiction to have access to longterm treatment and housing.

Still, Parker has been unabashedly supportive of the police department, and her administration's 53-page public safety plan is almost entirely about law enforcement strategies.

The plan says that people in addiction will be offered the opportunity to seek treatment before facing arrest. Some of Parker's allies in City Council — including Councilmember Jim Harrity, who is himself in recovery from alcohol addiction — have said incarceration should be viewed as a tool to push people toward recovery.

"The whole idea is to get these people into long-term recovery," Harrity said earlier this year. "I also know that from experience being in recovery, that some of us actually do have to get a criminal record in order to get sober."

Others push back. The city's jail system is already facing a crisis of understaffing, and every part of the city's criminal justice system has been working on a nearly decade-long project to reduce the prison population.

Mike Lee, the executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and former chief of staff to District Attorney Larry Krasner, said the city and state have made significant progress on "acknowledging the harms" of arrests and convictions for low-level crimes. He pointed to the state's repeated expansion of its "Clean Slate Law," which allows for removal of some records for nonviolent crimes from public view.

"It's a conflicting signal to say there's a long-term harm with this conviction, but the short-term benefit is to you," Lee said.

He added: "One of the gains we've made is taking the stigma away from substance use and addiction. I'm very concerned and want to make sure the stigma of substance use doesn't go backward."

Liz Chiarello, an associate professor at St. Louis University who has studied medical sociology and the opioid crisis, agreed, saying the country has made strides in its language use around addiction and political leaders today more often describe it as a disease, not a choice.

But Chiarello said that even Democrats "have never been as progressive as people who advocate for people who use drugs would like them to be." She said policy shifts such as reducing funding to syringe exchange services or arresting people in addiction stand to reverse progress more.

"What all of our cities need to do is build on the harm reduction resources that exist," she said, "instead of taking them away and putting punishment in their place."

(c)2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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