Drug trade goes on and on, straining prisons, programs

This Just In...

November 15, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

Morning in The City That Reads started with Hodaviah, Hoham and the Holy Spirit, which is where a woman in the third row of the gallery at Eastern District Court opened her copy of "Who's Who In The Bible." She started in the H's and, 35 minutes later, moved into the L's: Leah, Levi, Lot and Luke. A few minutes later, she was reading about Maacah and Maadiah. Another hour into the docket, she was reading Psalms. By the time her 19-year-old son came from the lockup, wrists cuffed behind his back, the woman had put her books away and folded her hands.

As the prosecutor read the statement of facts in the case, a thought bounced off the wall and hit me where it hurts: This 19-year-old defendant-drug-dealer-son hadn't even been born the first time I stepped into a District Court and heard a similarly pathetic story of a man-child, arrested several times as a juvenile, selling dope in East Baltimore.

And as I listened to case after case over two hours of a snowy morning, I caught the Biblical spirit and thought of Ecclesiastes: "There is nothing new under the sun. . . . One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh."

Nineteen years ago there was probably a 19-year-old standing with a chum in the 1500 block of N. Montford Ave., the two of them trading cocaine for cash. And there were probably Eastern District cops watching from a distance, then moving in and arresting them, then following them into District Court. Then the boys probably stood before a middle-aged judge while a young assistant state's attorney read a statement of facts (though the prosecutor at the time probably didn't wear crew socks and sneakers).

I'll bet the kid's mama was there, too.

And I'll bet she prayed for a suspended sentence.

I'm willing to bet the judge gave one, too, with maybe a year's probation and a few dozen hours of community service thrown in.

It goes on, and on and on -- powered mainly by the demand for heroin and cocaine.

The handling of cases is as predictable as the seasons. You get PBJ's (probation before judgment), stets, bench trials. There's the old, reliable not-guilty/statement-of-facts action plan for cutting swiftly through the long docket. There are bundles of drug cases. And all god's children seem to be stuck in the cycle of arrest-court-probation-arrest. The crimes are the same, with only slight variations.

For example: carpet cleaner as a substitute for heroin.

That was a new one. It came up yesterday in the case of a woman named Eggleston. She had been arrested on suspicion of selling heroin. But a crime lab test showed that the white, powdery stuff in her possession was not a controlled dangerous substance but probably carpet cleaner, the kind one sprinkles and vacuums in an effort to make a rug smell springtime fresh. Case dismissed.

"She made good money before she got caught," the guy next to me said with a laugh.

Maybe she should have been charged with fraud, not distribution.

The judge in Courtroom 3 of the big discount house of justice -- the old Sears, North Avenue and Harford Road -- was one Charles Chiapparelli, still in his first year as a District judge but already a master of flow. He knows how to keep the docket moving without skipping the details or key points of inquiry.

Yesterday, for instance, when a 50-year-old man named Bailey stood to face a charge of holding heroin on Eager Street, Chiapparelli advised the man that he was likely to receive probation before judgment and a 60-day suspended sentence (a common resolution to simple possession cases). "They're not recommending time," the judge said of the state, "and I generally go along with their recommendation."

But did this Bailey understand? Was he under the influence of drugs or alcohol?

"Do you know where you are," Chiapparelli asked, "and what you are doing?"

"Yes," said Bailey. "I'm at Harford Road and North Avenue."

Next:

The door from the lockup opened, and we heard the rattle of ankle chains. Four more accused drug dealers -- Messers Blue, Rivers, Dickens and Walters -- slid into the front pew of the gallery; they hunched forward because their hands were cuffed behind their backs. The tallest and oldest of the four, dressed in sweats and a dingy Florida State Seminoles jacket, cradled a Bible in his cuffed hands. All had been in jail for 30 days. All had been arrested on suspicion of selling cocaine in East Baltimore last month. As they waited for their cases to be called, two of them -- Blue and Rivers -- laughed at something between them.

Mr. Blue got a 90-day sentence.

But Mr. Rivers' sentence was suspended.

Dicken's case was postponed.

Walters got a 17-month sentence, also suspended. Obviously, the amounts of cocaine found on these guys had not impressed the judge as evidence of major dealing.

A pony-tailed woman named Smith had been arrested for heroin possession; her one-year sentence was suspended. A 25-year-old guy named Coleman, arrested for holding cocaine, was given six months in jail, suspended.

There isn't room in prison for them all. There isn't enough treatment for their addictions. And so it goes on, and on and on. The drug trade endures. And we're all getting older every day.

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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