D.C. Police Chief Maurice Turner and other area law enforcement officials said yesterday that drug dealers get significantly lighter sentences in the District of Columbia than in surrounding jurisdictions and that this disparity has helped draw dealers to the city.
Dealers believe that "D.C. is lenient and you don't have to do time," Turner testified at a hearing of the House District subcommittee on fiscal affairs yesterday. "It says to them , if you want to be an entrepreneur, sell drugs in the District rather than in the suburbs."
District police officers sometimes will even wait to arrest suspected drug traffickers until they leave the city and go into Maryland, because then they can be prosecuted in federal court in Baltimore, which is known for its stiff sentences, Turner said after the hearing.
"It's a strategy," to arrest dealers in the suburban jurisdictions, he said. "It has been helpful."
Turner gave an example of a drug "ringleader" arrested in the District in 1982 with two kilograms of cocaine. He was locked up one night, released on $50,000 bail and allowed to travel to other cities until he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison, according to police officials.
Two of this dealer's "henchmen" were arrested at the same time in Virginia. They were locked up, had bail set at $300,000 and were not released before their trial. They were sentenced in Virginia to 23 years and a $25,000 fine each, police officials said.
Dealers know other ways around the system in the District, the officials testified.
"Street distributors in the District of Columbia know that D.C. Superior Court will not paper prosecute less than 10 'quarters' a teaspoon-size buy of heroin as possession with intent to distribute, so street dealers in the District of Columbia will carry nine 'quarters' of heroin even though they have more available," said Lt. Hugh Irwin of the U.S. Park Police.
U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova said he is not aware of any disparity in sentencing between the District and federal courts in the surrounding jurisdictions. While his office has been disappointed occasionally in sentencing, sentences from U.S. District Court are "a lot longer than they have ever been" for drug use, he said.
D.C. Delegate Walter E. Fauntroy, who called the hearings, proposed that a regional authority be set up to address drug law enforcement on a regional basis, including the issue of disparity in sentencing.
Testimony at the hearings drew a picture of local and federal law enforcement officials throwing more and more resources into fighting an uphill battle against drug use and sales. While arrests and prosecutions are up, so is drug use and addiction, according to the law enforcement officials.
Ninety percent of the major drug dealers the District is pursuing or investigating live in suburban areas, and many of those arrested for buying drugs in the city are suburbanites, Turner said.
But while Turner said he has 281 full-time narcotics agents in the District for a population of about 635,000, the surrounding areas with a population of about 2 million have only 30 full-time narcotics officers among them, according to police officials from Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Maj. James Ross of Prince George's County said that a higher quality of cocaine has become available at lower prices in his county. At the same time, prosecutions there have been hampered and delayed because the state's drug-testing laboratories, necessary to provide key pieces of evidence, are overburdened, Ross said.