Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng:
Restarting the Anti-Drug Engine
In this exclusive interview, Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng addresses the intractable challenges of drug abuse, the need for social support, and her strategy for concrete action.
Restarting the Anti-Drug EngineBy Sara Wu, Alice Ting
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 405 )
Born to a Tainan City physician's family, 56-year-old Wang Ching-feng is a licensed attorney who graduated from National Chengchi University Law School.
At the age of 35, she established the Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation, dedicated to rescuing child prostitutes. She often passed letters from child prostitutes pleading for rescue on to police, and followed the police on her motorcycle to their late-night brothel raids. Unfortunately, once released from police custody, these children were often recaptured by human traffickers and returned to the brothels they had escaped. At 38, Wang set up the Lily Halfway House as a shelter for these children. In 1999, she promoted legal amendments to punish prostitution clients as well as prostitutes, and to change the classification of rape from an offense indictable only upon complaint, to one that is indictable without the victim pressing charges.
Upon becoming the Minister of Justice, Wang did not abandon her concern for the underprivileged, but turned her attention to drug abuse and prison administration – two problems that have been much overlooked by society.
Approximately 40 percent of all inmates in Taiwan's chronically overcrowded prison system are drug-related offenders, and drug-related convicts have a recidivism rate of 80 percent.
Wang believes that only comprehensive governance and response measures against drug-related organized crime can achieve harm reduction.
"I can bend and I can bow," says Wang. To make the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) an agency for the people, she is prepared to humble herself before the legislature or any other related agency.
At a heroin-prevention symposium, she freely admitted the difficulties and challenges of the job: "To be honest, Taiwan has had no success with its efforts to keep addicts off drugs." After an intensive, short-term research effort, she has already prepared a strategic "service package."
Following is an exclusive interview she granted to CommonWealth Magazine.
Q: Why has the drug problem in Taiwan not been improved over the years?
It was commonly believed that because addicts do not have the chance to do drugs in prison, incarceration will wean them off their addiction.
In reality, even if someone is kept off drugs for months, even a year, they are usually returned to familiar surroundings and acquaintances immediately upon release. Without a good system of guidance and follow-up support, it is not unusual for them to return to their old habits.
Now that I have a better understanding of the problem, I believe the solution lies in a "service package." Both the physical and mental needs of the individual addict must be met, and their system of family support needs to be examined.
In 2006, several city and county governments in Taiwan established a joint Drug Abuse Prevention Center, where narcotics-related data for all former prison and rehabilitation clinic inmates are sent. This is a comprehensive social relief effort that provides both medical and psychological rehabilitation services, as well as job training.
The Drug Abuse Prevention Center is an ad hoc organization, and has been drawing funds from the Executive Yuan's Second Reserve Fund for the past three years. I want to push for its formal establishment under law. That way, the Drug Abuse Prevention Center will truly be able to implement follow-up counseling.
Q: How many drug users are there in Taiwan?
That is an unknown, because drug use is a hidden act, not an open one. Unless we catch them all, it's difficult to know exactly how many there are. Some say 200,000, some say 300,000, but we can't know for sure. The ketamine problem is an even bigger unknown. What we do know is that the problem is severe. Police have found these substances in pubs, Internet cafes, and teahouses.
Many kids in juvenile detention are there for drug use. If you talk to them a little, just ask a few questions, you'll see that these kids are all good kids, and that adults need to take much of the blame for what these kids have done. But these adults may not be able to take responsibility, because they may have their own problems.
Q: What will the Ministry of Justice focus on in future?
Specialist personnel. The role of social workers is very important. I've always believed in the importance of established support. When a person is experiencing some difficulty, suffering a setback, or just suddenly needs to talk, there should always be someone there to provide support.
I think our future direction is the effective establishment of a response system. We want to build a lighthouse, but that doesn't mean every ship will be drawn to port. Nevertheless, it is essential that the lighthouse be built.
The number of convicted drug users in prison has not changed much over the past ten years. Between 2000 and 2007, the numbers have held steady at between 15,000 and 20,000.
We are also discussing the establishment of a monitoring taskforce at the Taiwan High Prosecutors' Office. Every local prosecutors' office would also have an operations unit, focusing on this problem as a special assignment. They would organize the data collected from years of investigative efforts. This would help us understand the entire framework, from upstream drug transport to midstream sales to downstream consumers. Only with a comprehensive narcotics database and an established platform can we prevent parallel and redundant investigations.
When I have visited local investigative agencies, they have told me that a single drug dealer will deal in many different areas. If a dealer is operating in Jiayi City, Nantou County and Tainan County, investigators can't apply for a single surveillance permit through the Jiayi County Prosecutors' Office to track the suspect to other areas, but need to apply for permission with each individual local prosecutor's office. So you can see that it's extremely important for us to establish a single window of operations.
Q: What is your view on the debate whether drug addiction is an illness or a crime?
We know how hard it is for police to apprehend addicts. But we can't keep them in jail forever, can we? That's the problem we face today. Drug use does not carry a life sentence, and even if it did, they wouldn't stay in prison forever. The current sentence is no more than five years for using a Schedule 1 drug, and no more than three years for a Schedule 2 drug. We can't keep them in prison for life.
However, addiction is a recurrent disease, and the crime gets repeated. There's a blind spot in the process.
Translated from the Chinese by Ellen Wieman
Chinese Version: 王清峰：我是混過江湖的