Writers for HBO’s The Wire Offer Criticism and Solutions for Criminal Justice System

With the demise of fan favorites The Sopranos and Sex and the City, as well as the winter-long Hollywood writer’s strike that shut down nearly all other scripted television shows, HBO’s The Wire has recently cemented its place as one of television’s historic shows. A combination of added viewership thanks to the strike and exceptional writing that took on some of America’s toughest social issues-drugs, education, the criminal justice system, just to name a few-vaulted the show from third chair in a solid HBO lineup to the forefront of popular culture.

Creator Ed Burns has taken advantage of his position to speak out on some of the real-world issues faced by the characters in his gritty universe of inner-city Baltimore. While it is not unusual for Hollywood celebrities to use the pulpit of their fame to advance their social activism, Burns and his staff of writers have taken a more intellectually-based bent to their advocacy that has been as refreshing in its honesty as controversial in its criticism.

In an article that appeared in the March 5, 2008 issue of Time, Burns and The Wire co-writers Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Richard Price and David Simon offered a group perspective on criminal justice system reform based on the public interest demonstrated by viewers of the show.

Offering a bleak picture of the current war on drugs and the resultant approach to criminal prosecution and imprisonment, underscored by a Pew Center study that 1 of every 100 adults in the U.S. is incarcerated, the writers support what they see as the only alternative to passive acceptance of this sorry state of things: civil disobedience.

The crux of their argument comes at the end of the piece, in a stunningly brave and simple declaration:

“If asked to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence presented. Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or intended violence are alleged, we will – to borrow Justice Harry Blackmun’s manifesto against the death penalty – no longer tinker with the machinery of the drug war. No longer can we collaborate with a government that uses nonviolent drug offenses to fill prisons with its poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens.”

While realizing that their intended actions “will not solve the drug problem, nor will it heal all civic wounds,” the writers suggest that such a move would be the simplest way to effect change on an individual level in the criminal justice system.

Perhaps it is a symptom of the corruption of the criminal justice system that Burns and the writers portray that controversy would stew among prosecuting attorneys over their advocacy of jury nullification, which the writers say in their article is “legitimate protest.” Reason Magazine highlights one such condemnation of their viewpoint by a Texas attorney who claims that public encouragement for jury nullification should be a crime in itself.

Ed Burns’ Three Steps to Criminal Justice Reform

The jury nullification actions supported by the writers, however, only addresses one position in a criminal justice system that has many parts and is greater than the sum of those parts in any case. Policymakers rather want concrete steps to take to initiate the kind of change that would solve some of the problems caused by the War on Drugs and other institutional actions that continue the process of social inequality.

Ed Burns offered three points in a plan for criminal justice system reform in a short article in Reason. His three action points, as quoted in the article, would be:

  1. End drug prohibition.
  2. Change priorities. “We need to stop warehousing people in prisons. Nonviolent offenders should be let go. On the front end, we need to find ways to give these kids more opportunities so they can be competitive, so they aren’t slinging dope on the corners.”
  3. Stop the numbers game. “If a big-time dealer is a ’1,’ and a low-level crack user is a ’1,’ who do you think is going to get the bulk of police attention? The easier guy. It’s easy to hit the corners and round guys up. We should focus police attention on serious crimes, and stop measuring success by the number of guys we put in jail.”

Though not wholly original, Burns’ steps would involve a major shift in the approach to crime in America. While it is not likely that any of these policies would be implemented easily or any time soon, Burns has likely been able to catch the ear of many an important policymaker-presidential candidate Barack Obama was quoted as saying that The Wire is the best show on television in his opinion-through his intelligent and honest portrayal of the criminal justice system in America.

It’s the power of art to appeal to human emotion and reason in a way that politics cannot. For that reason alone, the writers of The Wire have earned the right to be heard on these crucial issues of social inequality. Perhaps they can break through where politicians have failed.