As City Jails Overflow, Drug Problems Fester A Revolving-Door Criminal-Justice System. Long Waits For Rehab. Poverty And Joblessness. Causes Are Easy To Find. Solutions Are Elusive.

Ricardo Rodriquez had a problem with court dates. Ten times he was supposed to face drug charges. Ten times he failed to appear.

Rodriquez, 20, wasn't exactly facing unpaid parking tickets. He had been charged three separate times with selling crack or powdered cocaine. In one bust, he was caught with enough to make a hundred $10 bags.

The system briefly caught up with Rodriquez in December, when he was jailed for missing his court dates. But by Jan. 29, he was back out on the street, yet another beneficiary of the cap imposed on the city's overcrowded prisons.

On Feb. 27, Rodriquez missed a new court date, and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest. Nine days ago, he again failed to appear in court. He was still a fugitive yesterday.

The prison cap helps answer one question asked again and again by law- abiding people in and around the drug corridor some police call the Badlands: Why do accused drug dealers keep showing up back on the street after being arrested?

Prosecutors say the cap, in effect since June 1988, has essentially decriminalized street-corner drug dealing for suspects arrested by Philadelphia police. Some cops say the crime has been reduced to the level of a speeding ticket.

The cap has "converted the streets of the city of Philadelphia into our pretrial confinement locale," attorney Jerry S. Goldman wrote in a Citizens Crime Commission court brief opposing the cap. "A new class of persons (is) confined, namely the residents of poor neighborhoods, who are forced to lock themselves in their homes while the inmates patrol the streets."

Critics of the $11.7 billion federal "war on drugs," which spends seven of 10 dollars on law enforcement, say no amount of jail space will solve the

drug epidemic. They advocate targeting social inequities that contribute to inner-city drug abuse - unemployment, poor health care, inadequate housing, substandard public education, and a shortage of funds for treatment programs.

"We could send kids from this neighborhood to Harvard for what it costs to jail them," said Sister Carol Keck, an anti-drug crusader in the Norris Square area who cooperates closely with police.

While drug dealers should be jailed in order to give the community ''breathing room," Sister Keck said, that is only a partial solution.

"It's outrageous that our society has the money to jail these people, but not to educate them or pay for health care or job training," she said.

Because of the prison cap, a dealer must be caught with thousands of

dollars worth of drugs in order to be held for trial. As a result, the vast majority of drug suspects are processed "S.O.B." (signed own bail) and sent home - or back to dealing - even after missing several court dates on the same charge.

Court officials say at least 60 percent of the 26,000 people released after being arrested in the city last year were set free because of the jail cap. Most were drug-case defendants, many with previous drug convictions.

When the city agreed to the jail cap in 1986, it was seeking 18,000 fugitives, according to court records. Today, the figure is 41,000. Drug cases account for 11,400 bench warrants, or 28 percent.

Forty-six percent of drug defendants released after signing their own bail become fugitives, according to one study by the District Attorney's Office. They are not in great danger of being rounded up. The court system's Bench Warrant Unit has just 12 people searching for them.

Attorney David Richman, who represents the inmate who filed the 1982 suit that led to the cap, said the city's intent to lock up drug suspects is a ''bankrupt solution" spawned by drug war hysteria.

"Would the district attorney care to hazard a guess as to how many people we need to lock up in order to solve the problem?" Richman said. "Six thousand? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? Fifty thousand?"

The consent decree's target cap for city jails is 3,750 inmates. Yesterday, the city's jail population was 4,746. City health officials say there are roughly 50,000 to 60,000 regular users in Philadelphia who routinely break

drug laws.

"Incarceration is a nonsolution," Richman said. "It's an excuse not to try politically unpopular solutions."

Guillermo Salas, a community leader in West Kensington, said jailing every dealer would not remove the lure of drug profits for young people who have few alternatives.

"The temptation, the money, is great. You need a lot of self-discipline and guidance," Salas said. "But there are no resources here, no education or job opportunities."

Getting treatment in Philadelphia is not always easy. City-funded programs have 367 beds for in-patient, non-hospital drug treatment - about 150 to 250 fewer than needed, according to the city health department.

In the Badlands, drug counselors at the Overcomers support group say that about 160 addicts a month ask to be sent to a yearlong treatment program in Florida. The church's allotment is two beds a month.

In West Kensington, Sister Marti Zeitz said addicted women in her women's support center wait months to get into a program - if at all.

"By the time they say you can get in," an addict at the center said last week, "you're so comfortable back on drugs you don't go."


On the streets of the Badlands, many dealers know by heart the amounts of drugs required to put them in jail. Their shift bosses make sure that they stay under the limits dictated by the prison cap, according to several dealers.

Under the prison cap, any drug suspect caught with less than the following amounts of drugs cannot be held while awaiting trial:

Fifty pounds of marijuana. Street value: $112,000.

Fifty grams of heroin. Street value: $33,000.

Fifty grams of cocaine. Street value: $5,000.

Ten grams of crack, about 100 large vials. Street value: $500.

These limits, which were increased fivefold in September 1990 in an effort to get closer to the cap, mean that most of the corner dealers who terrorize neighborhoods are immune from incarceration.

"Drug defendants now typically have no fear of the criminal justice system," Galen Clements, head of the D.A.'s Dangerous Drug Offender Unit, wrote in a 1991 court document. "They frequently laugh at law enforcement officers."

Putting accused dealers back on the street also compromises drug investigations because many arrests unmask undercover officers, Clements said. Other narcotics officers say the cap fosters a sense of permissiveness within dealers' families.

"If you're a single mother with kids to raise, you're not going to turn your nose up at a son who takes a street job selling drugs," said Lt. John Gallo of the police Narcotics Field Unit. "She knows he won't go to jail if he stay under the amounts. Where's the risk?"

Gallo said the cap has left him and his narcotics officers frustrated and demoralized. Day after day, he said, his unit expends hours of street time and paperwork to arrest, on average, 10 suspected dealers, only to see them back on the street by nightfall.

Prosecutors contend that the jail cap has not only helped tip the scales of justice in favor of street-level drug dealers. They say it has also made the city attractive to importers who know how the cap works.

"It certainly makes the Philadelphia airport a desirable place to fly your drugs into," said Sarah B. Vandenbraak, the D.A.'s chief of civil litigation.

Even suspects who repeatedly show contempt for the court system cannot be held on a bench warrant unless they miss hearings in two separate cases.

The cap - similar to ones in effect in 39 other states - stems from a 1982 inmate lawsuit charging unconstitutional prison overcrowding. That case led the city to agree in 1986 to a consent decree, which calls for reducing the city jail population to 3,750 via the cap, while also proposing new prison space, courtrooms and rehabilitation programs.

U.S. District Judge Norma L. Shapiro, who has enforced the consent decree, said in a written opinion last year that the cap had not been shown to promote crime or disrespect for the courts. The cap does not apply to defendants charged with crimes in which guns, knives or explosives are used.

Even so, the D.A.'s Office says the cap frees people accused of violent crimes. Drug defendants are released when they are accused of a violent crime or possess a weapon, as long as they do not actually use a gun, knife or explosives.

Suspects facing charges serious enough to land them in jail don't necessarily stay there.

Since November, a so-called "back door" release mechanism ordered by the courts has made up to 175 awaiting-trial inmates eligible for release each week. The releases are generally determined on a longest-held, lowest-bail basis, Vandenbraak said.

According to court records, among the accused drug dealers now back on the street courtesy of the "back door" mechanism are:

Sylvan V. Roberts, charged three time with selling cocaine and held for 105 days. He has missed five court dates.

Joe L. Bell, 39, charged twice with selling cocaine and held for three weeks. He has missed four court dates.

Arthur G. Brinson, 31, who uses the alias "Danny Glover," charged three times with selling cocaine or crack, once while in possession of a loaded handgun. He has missed three court dates.

Even suspects charged with trafficking in large amounts of drugs are not guaranteed a place in the city's prisons. In June, police arrested Jamer Ribera after they said they had found three kilograms of cocaine worth $450,000 in a car at Fifth and Luray Streets.

Ribera's attorney, Peter C. Bowers, said Ribera had been singled out

because he was Colombian. He said he had no previous arrest record. Ribera, 24, pleaded not guilty.

His bail was first set at $2 million. In July, it was reduced to $750,000.

The lower bail and Ribera's time behind bars gradually made him eligible for the back-door mechanism. In February, he was proposed for release.

The district attorney successfully challenged the proposal, saying Ribera was not likely to show up for trial if set free. As proof, prosecutors cited the answers Ribera gave to routine police questions after his arrest.

Other than "Apartment with friends, Queens, N.Y.," he could not provide a home address, agents said. But he did provide a home phone number - in Colombia.

On Wednesday, a Common Pleas Court judge convicted Ribera of conspiracy to sell cocaine.

The jail cap has coincided with a dramatic rise in city drug arrests - from 4,859 in 1985 to 14,102 in 1990. The problem is particularly acute in the Badlands, which is both a retail trafficking center and a wholesale distribution hub for the city and suburbs.

"It's like being in a room full of ants," said Sam Billbrough, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office in Philadelphia. "Where do you stomp first? If you stomp here, they all scatter over there."

Since January 1991, the U.S. Attorney's Office has tried to counteract the jail cap by "adopting" major drug cases from city courts for prosecution in federal courts, which provide for pretrial detention, high bail, speedy trials and mandatory sentences. Largely because it selects cases with the strongest evidence, the Federal Alternatives to State Trials (FAST) program claims a 100 percent conviction rate.

Federal authorities also say they have crushed several major drug organizations through indictments that land accused dealers in federal court. The gangs are targeted by the Violent Traffickers' Project, which combines federal, state and city resources to attack entire organizations, not individual dealers.

In the Badlands, a word that often turns up in dealers' conversations is indictment, as in: "He went down on indictment" or "We don't need any indictment around here."

In the last two years, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, about 21 major dealer or supplier groups in or around the Badlands have been hit with indictments. Seven of those prosecutions indicted 40 or more people. In all, more than 600 members of 30 city drug gangs are now in federal prisons, according to federal figures.

Citywide, federal authorities say three violent Jamaican posses - two in or near the Badlands - have been broken up over the last two years, with 92 convictions.

Indictments have reduced violence and cut drug volume at some Badlands corners, said Thomas J. Rueter, chief of the Narcotics Section of the U.S. Attorney's Office. Although such notorious corners as Fourth and Cambria are still busy, Billbrough describes dealers there now as "stragglers and freelancers."

Whatever they are called, there are plenty of them. Since the federal busts at Fourth and Cambria in July, city police have hit the corner at least three times. They have arrested 143 buyers and 23 dealers, confiscating 121 vehicles.

Street dealers say new gangs are constantly organizing to move in on territory left in limbo by indictments. They predict that no corner as valuable as Fourth and Cambria will stay unclaimed by a major organization for long.

Many narcotics officers say the potential for huge profits virtually guarantees an endless supply of eager new dealers.

"You can bust one shift, but the next shift comes on duty like nothing happened," Gallo said. "It's like beads on a string. You yank off one bead and another drops down."

Related People

Complex Litigation Attorney | Anderson Kill P.C.
Jerry S. Goldman
New York | Philadelphia

Related Practice Areas