The Tribble case

November 26, 1990

Brian Tribble, who three years ago was acquitted on charges of supplying the cocaine that killed Maryland basketball star Len Bias, has pleaded guilty to selling more than 110 pounds of cocaine over the past 18 months. Now he awaits sentencing and faces at least 10 years without parole.

And yet, even though Tribble finally seems to be getting his comeuppance, his case raises a troubling question about the way we deal with drug offenders: Was the time and expense the government went to in prosecuting him in the original Bias case ultimately counterproductive?

Prince George's County police say Tribble wasn't even a major drug figure at the time of Bias' death. It was only after he was acquitted in that case that he became notorious in drug circles as someone who was "safe" to do business with. Then his career took off. This is just the sort of unintended consequence that Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke had in mind when he suggested that drug abuse might better be treated as a public health problem rather than a criminal justice matter. Tribble is a perfect example of a person who was actually encouraged to engage in illegal activity by his contact with the police and courts.

No one can know if Tribble might have taken a different course had the Bias case been handled differently. But it's conceivable he might have been led away from drugs had he been offered the option of treatment. Instead he was emboldened to become more deeply involved by an unsuccessful prosecution.

The whole idea of criminal penalties is to serve as a deterrent. When they can no longer do that, perhaps its time, as Schmoke suggests, to look for other alternatives.

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