Frustration rules in city narcotics unit

November 16, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

When last seen, Jesus Womack was entering a prison cell. It's taken 34 arrests over the past four years to get him there. His rap sheet runs to four typed pages, with charges of narcotics distribution, policed a suspended sentence and sent him back to the streets. He is 22 years old.

At Northwestern District's narcotics unit office Tuesday afternoon, there was much talk of Womack. At one point in his brief life, he was out on bail while awaiting nine trials. He finally was put away the other day for violating his probation. Big deal, somebody said. Womack's a tiny piece of the problem, wherein the cops keep busting the street hustlers, and the judges keep letting them go, or the various lawyers cut a deal, and now the state's attorney of Baltimore makes everyone's job more frustrating by upping the divide between drug misdemeanors and felonies.

The air in the narcotics unit's office was filled with cigarette smoke and cynicism. A fellow named Ed looked up from a desk and said, "I'm just a visitor here. This is how they treat visitors." He wore handcuffs. He was picked up hours earlier with a couple of vials of something illegal. At the moment, two plainclothes guys were trying to coax him to chat.

"You want a soda?" one asked, reaching into a small refrigerator.

"Naw," said Ed. He sat thoughtfully for a moment. "You got a sandwich?"

He could afford to feel loose. Why fret a couple of little vials when the ones like Jesus Womack can roam the streets fearlessly? The judges say the prisons are too crowded now for small-time guys, and so they grant probation and more probation. The state's attorney makes 30 bags the divide on misdemeanors and felonies, which serves as a warning to distributors everywhere who pay attention to such things: Thirty bags is where you draw the line.

So the cops, fighting a city of 60,000 hard-core addicts and getting little help at the courthouses, are talking of their increasing frustration when Officer Kevin Baskett walks into the drug unit office. He's just come from a trial downtown. He was chasing a suspect several months back, when the guy turned and fired several shots at Baskett. Hit him twice, in the wrist and the hand. There were three witnesses.

On Tuesday, the case came to court. Baskett, pulling up his uniform sleeve and showing his bullet scars, announces that a deal was struck. It's the way things happen now; got to ease that prison overcrowding. The shooter was given credit for time served in jail while awaiting trial. The remainder of his sentence was suspended. It's the new world order: shoot a cop, catch a break.

"They all know what's going on in the courts," one plainclothes officer says now. "The last time I arrested Jesus Womack, he told me, 'I'll be out tomorrow morning.' One time we arrested 10 different dealers down at Quantico Avenue by 8 o'clock in the morning. Two hours later, there were 10 more dealers taking their place. You have to have a punishment, and right now they're all figuring there is no punishment."

Thus, we have this fellow Ed sitting in the drug unit office with a little smile playing across his lips. The cops say he's a runner for a stash house, selling caps of dope at $6 apiece and keeping $1 of this for himself.

"Didn't I warn you two weeks ago in that vacant house that you need to move on?" Ed is asked now. He nods his head. A week ago, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy changed her office's rules so that more drug offenders will be charged with misdemeanors instead of felonies.

Now a person caught with up to 30 bags of heroin or cocaine, or 30 rocks of crack, will be charged only with drug possession, a misdemeanor.

"We're six months down the road in terms of scheduling [Circuit Court] cases," Jessamy announced a week ago. "We need to get them into court as soon as possible."

Thus, as much as 29 bags of dope now counts as nothing more than "personal use," and not intent to distribute. A slap on the wrist, not a stretch in prison.

"What it means," says one plainclothes cop, "is that we can stand there and watch a guy deal 10 bags at a time, hour after hour, and it doesn't mean anything. Because he's only got 10 bags on him when we nail him. He's smart enough not to carry 30. They don't count all the stuff you watched him deal to make your case."

And now Ed, sitting there with his hands in cuffs, looks up and smiles slightly. Dealers and buyers, somebody says. In effect, they're all the same now. Misdemeanors. This is a cause for great relief among dealers. Even the guys like Jesus Womack. It took the system 34 arrests to finally put him away. But he'll be back. And then, things being how they are, it'll take the system even longer to put away all the Jesus Womacks out there.

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