A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

HOW $20 IN CRACK LED TO FIFTY YEARS IN PRISON

Harper: "No, I don't understand."
Judge Ventre: "All right, the court is directing the public defender to file a notice on behalf of the defendant . . . "

IN HIS OPENING STATEMENT to Harper's jury, these were the very first words out of prosecutor Patrick Schneider: "I know that you've all heard about what's called the war on drugs, and I'm sure that you've all read about it, seen it on TV, heard it on the radio. Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, you see something that relates to the drug problem and what we call the war on drugs. Ladies and gentlemen, what we're about here today and what we're doing here is part of that war on drugs."

But by his closing statement, even the prosecutor was describing Harper as the operator of "a lemonade stand."

Louis Harper was not a major dealer; he wasn't a middle-level dealer. In the prosecutor's eyes, he was at the bottom of the food chain and a pretty typical crack peddler at that.

If Do Drugs/Do Time represented a public policy breakthrough in the battle against crack, as President Bush would have us believe, you would think that Louis Harper would be someone the program would reach.

The fact of the matter is that Arizona's approach to drugs is not a new chapter but instead represents a page from the oldest book in the library: incarceration.

While Do Drugs/Do Time has generated national interest as an alternative to building new jail cells, the truth is that Arizona's prisons have exploded with inmates like Harper.

In fiscal year 1986-87, Arizona locked up 32 people in the state prison under the dangerous drug statute. The next year drug legislation pushed by the attorney general and signed by then-Governor Evan Mecham went into effect. The results were dramatic:

1986-87: 32 incarcerated
1987-88: 121 incarcerated
1988-89: 466 incarcerated
1989-90: 749 incarcerated

Even though Harper was a lemonade-stand operator, he was classified as a salesman.

Once you are charged with drug sales, you are automatically excluded from the TASC seminars.

The difference between the consumption of cocaine in black South Phoenix and the consumption of cocaine in the white suburbs is the difference between jail time and seminars.

In fact, Judge Ventre himself expressed the reality of Do Drugs/Do Time and crack: "I thought TASC was only for marijuana, only for nondangerous drugs, not for cocaine or heroin."

Actually, TASC does accept cocaine abusers but the rules for admission--first offense, possession not sale--are such that the odds are stacked astronomically against someone with a crack profile getting in. Although Judge Ventre expressed his disgust that Harper openly sold his $20 rocks on a street corner--"the blatant obviousness"--that is exactly how crack is marketed in America's minority neighborhoods. Unlike their suburban counterparts who move grams and ounces of cocaine powder discreetly, small-time crack peddlers are sitting ducks for undercover officers. Because crack is generally smoked immediately and quickly, there are seldom arrests where someone is charged with possession of crack. If the police are going to make any impact at all, it is the street hawker who is going down. These petty criminals are charged with sales, and instead of being offered the TASC diversion program they are put on the fast track to prison. Records for the twenty criminal divisions of Maricopa County Superior Court reinforce this reality.

On October 21, for example, in what court administrator Mark Weinberg described as a normal day, 17 percent of the drug cases involved crack. Each of these defendants was arrested with a small amount of the drug, yet each was charged with sales.

None of these people qualified for TASC.
Of the fifteen crack defendants, twelve were unemployed and all were penniless. (Typical arrest sheets show one man had $8.42 in his pocket when he was booked, another had a $5 bill and two combs.) All but two of those on their way to jail were black or Hispanic. The de facto racial underpinning of the Do Drugs/Do Time program is inadvertently highlighted by TASC's own statistical charts where headings such as "Possession of Marijuana" show white couples represented by stick figures in suits, black females in maid's costumes, Hispanic males in Mexican sombreros and "other" nationalities portrayed in Indian garb or grass skirts.

While minorities apprehended with crack seldom qualify for diversion into the TASC seminars, a cocaine abuser who did was Ken Roberson, who went on to become the best-known graduate of the program.

A drug abuser for more than a decade who lost his marriage to his addiction, Roberson was arrested when police responded to his suburban-home burglar alarm and accidentally discovered his coke paraphernalia and small amounts of the drug.

Shortly before his bust, Roberson consumed an eight-ball of cocaine, roughly $350 of the drug or nearly four times the amount Louis Harper possessed at the time of his arrest.

Once enrolled in TASC, Roberson went on to become something of a spokesperson for the program. Though he was addicted to powdered cocaine, not crack, Roberson appeared on an episode of the CBS news show 48 Hours entitled "Night on Crack Street." He also has made radio appearances as well as serving as a paid guest lecturer in TASC classes.

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