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Chief Bratton concurs.
“What I don’t think is often understood is that the role of the police down there is to protect that population as much as it is to protect populations throughout the city,” he says. “And that population is more susceptible to predatory behavior because they are among the weakest and most helpless in society because of drug addiction or schizophrenic condition or the advent of alcohol or ... they’re easy prey unfortunately.”
I’m humming the hook from “Get Them Chips” as I walk down a long hall on the 17th floor of the courthouse building at 210 W. Temple St. It’s like a gallery and the current installation is a series of visual-aid/trial-art collages featuring big blown-up photos of dead gangsters that take up the wall space on both sides. Gotta get my chippy on...
Janet Moore is the director of central operations at the D.A.’s office. She looks like she could be a producer for Oliver Stone. Tom Higgins is the head deputy district attorney in the complaints division and recently ran for D.A. but lost to Steve Cooley. He might run again. Higgins has got a mind of his own, and he and Moore know all about gangs and dope and crime and time served (or not served, as the case may be) for all those gangsters getting their chippy on whom Captain Smith and his crew keep sending over from the box.
Moore and Higgins dwell in the hyperachieving, ultra-competitive world of the D.A.’s office. They’re bringing their “A” game at all times. You can smell it. It’s not a comfortable place and they are not comfortable people.
The super dope cops told me all about the connection between gangs and drugs and crime, and Moore has some sure-shot solutions for all that. “One of the things we have done here,” she tells me, “is that we have a marvelous tool to combat gangs, which is penal code section 186.22. It addresses a variety of issues, but it gives us some tools to really hammer a gang member who is involved in criminal activities for the benefit of the gang.”
Moore’s talking about additional sentencing options for crimes committed by gang bangers. Higgins jumps in, “If you are committing a crime for the benefit of the gang, in addition to the penalties there are enhanced penalties. It gets them off the street for a longer time.”
The cops were too polite to say that the courts are a revolving door, but there is a general consensus in the police department that the people they arrest on drug charges don’t serve any kind of meaningful time, and that is a big part of the reason why the ceaseless drug market in the streets of City Central seems to go on forever.
Higgins doesn’t exactly disagree.
“As far as what appears to be a revolving door,” Higgins clears his throat, “I would say that 800 to 900 cases a month come through here that are dope only, whether they be possession, possession for sale or sales. That’s the city this side of the hills. It does not include the Valley. We have nine stations plus some special units coming in here. And out of those nine stations we get 800 to 900 dope cases a month out of a total volume of about 2,200, 2,300 a month. It varies. About 40 percent of these people are on probation.
“We’re just recycling the same people back out there,” Higgins continues. “The cops are seeing the same people that they arrested two weeks ago.”
“Basically you put people in jail and they’re doing three to seven days. That is a problem and we do try to levy jail time and probation sentences and send people to county [jail],” adds Moore. “But Proposition 36 substantially changes the way that we do business in drug cases. It was a big societal shift from punishment and incarceration over to rehabilitation.”
Proposition 36 is the initiative that was passed by 61 percent of California voters in November 2000. It allows people convicted of nonviolent drug possession to get treatment instead of incarceration, often even if it’s a third pop. Prop. 36 costs $120 million annually, though it was supposed to saveCalifornia taxpayers $1.5 billion over five years. I think I might have voted for that one myself, but I missed the part that said the streets would be overrun with crack-smoking junkies and dope fiends.
“The mentality of this building the 30-plus years I’ve been in this office is, ‘Move the calendar,’” Higgins says. “That’s the building as a whole. Individual judges and D.A.'s see it differently, I would hope. But the predominant culture of the building is move the calendar and justice rides in the back seat. The bottom line, what defense attorneys and prosecutors talk about 99 percent of the time is, ‘How much time is he gonna get?’ The closer you get to no time, the quicker the case goes away. Even with Prop. 36, when you get to the fourth one, it’s goodbye time ... or it’s supposed to be, but it’s not.”