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Investigative Reports in the News


September-October 1994

"Crime and No Punishment." Miami Herald. August 28-September 5 and September 22, 1994. All stories begin on page one.

This shocking series is the result of an eight-month study by the Herald staff into the practices of the Dade County court system. It documents how those practices are allowing repeat career criminals to evade jail time. Grossly overworked judges and prosecutors, inadequate prison capacity, and unusual discovery were identified as key reasons for a very ineffective system. The Herald staff also found that many defendants in violent crime and burglary cases used a drug addiction defense to persuade Dade County judges to cut their jail time considerably. Many never completed their assigned drug counseling program, and others never even enrolled.

The study also questioned the purported success rate of Dade's model Drug Court. The recently signed Federal crime bill includes $1 billion for new Drug Courts, modeled on the alleged success of Dade's system. The Herald found, however, shoddy evaluation of the program and estimated that only 20 to 40 percent of those who enroll in the program ever graduate. In a sample of 120 graduates, 40 percent are back in court within three years, comparable with the 43 percent of probationers who are rearrested nationwide.

Started in 1989, Drug Court was designed to treat rather than punish first-time drug offenders with the hope that they will not return to the criminal justice system. The treatment program includes counseling, acupuncture, and regular drug testing. When the participants are able to stay clean and counselors choose to release them, their records are erased of the drug charge.

A separate but related program called SORT (Special Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment) allows violent offenders to cut their time in prison if they agree to enroll in drug counseling, to be tested for drug use, to observe a curfew, and to be monitored by an electronic bracelet. The SORT participants have fewer chances to fail drug tests than those in the Drug Court program and cannot have charges erased from their record. The Herald series uncovers how "career criminals" and violent offenders used SORT to drastically reduce their jail time by trading in jail time for treatment. In response to this series, judges stopped sentencing defendants to the SORT program and it was discontinued (see follow-up, Sept. 22). Judges said public outcry after the series enabled them to end an "out of control" policy.

If a defendant cannot get into a drug program, the Herald shows that he or she is still unlikely to serve substantial time in prison. While someone living in Dade County is more likely than anyone in the nation to be a victim of crime, the criminal has the smallest chance of serving time in prison. Dade County, the Herald reported, has the most lenient court system of any large United States metropolitan area.

Dade County judges gave defendants reduced sentences 79 percent of the time when state sentencing guidelines called for prison time. The Herald staff observed one day when the majority of cases (97 of 162) were dropped although many defendants confessed or were caught at the scene of the crime. Of the 4,615 "career criminals" (averaging 20 prior felony arrests) in Metro-Dade police's computer system, only 621 were incarcerated at the time of the study. The study found that more and more repeat offenders are using the "defense of intoxication" to cut their time in jail.

The last part of the series recommends changes for the court system to solve some of the problems uncovered in the series. The Herald suggests only admitting first-time drug offenders to Drug Court to return the program to its original purpose. In addition, the authors recommend more drug treatment for those in jail, cracking down on the use of the drug addiction defense, and restructuring case calendars.

[The Herald's expose, if accurate, describes a criminal justice system completely off-course and out of control. Almost none of the problem is laws "not tough enough," but are inadequate resources and a court culture of inconceivable leniency. To obtain a reprint of this series, call 305-350-2111. There is a $7.50 charge. -- EES]

"Rosa Lee's Story." By Leon Dash. Washington Post. September 18-25, 1994. All articles start on page 1. Follow-up on October 2, 1994, page C1 and C3.

For four years Post reporter Leon Dash followed one woman, Rosa Lee Cunningham, and her family as they struggled with drug abuse, poverty, illiteracy and crime. The family's story is touching and inspiring for the same reasons it is infuriating and frustrating: the interrelated and intergenerational nature of these problems makes them difficult to confront and even harder to try to solve.

The daughter of sharecroppers, Rosa Lee, 53, has fought with poverty her entire life. She justified turning to drug selling, prostitution and stealing as necessary to support herself, her eight children, and later some of her 32 grandchildren. She often made decisions that she later regretted -- for example, teaching some of her grandchildren to steal and prostituting her young daughter. Rosa Lee's first involvement with drugs was as a heroin seller while a waitress in a nightclub. [I wondered if heroin were not prohibited and sold covertly at a great profit would she have been any less likely to enter the illegal drug lifestyle? -- EES]

It is these decisions that prompted many readers to respond to the Post with outrage (see responses printed on October 2, p. C3). Some dismissed her as a common criminal and a drug addict. Others criticized the Post's decision to focus on poverty in an African-American family instead of running a story that could inspire young people. Some thought the article blamed society for Rosa Lee's problems instead of placing responsibility with individuals.

How did two of Rosa Lee's children completely escape the cycle of poverty, drug abuse and public assistance when her other children could not? After heroin caused her to go into life-threatening seizures, why did Rosa Lee continue to use drugs and ignore her methadone therapy? When she exchanged sex for drugs, how could Rosa Lee's daughter not let her partners know she was HIV positive? What warped loyalty allowed the daughter to set up her boyfriend to be robbed and murdered? Forty years ago the D.C. public school system knowingly passed illiterate Rosa Lee from grade to grade. Is it doing so for the current students? What would be the effect of ending drug prohibition on families such as Rosa Lee's? Would it help break cycles of poverty, criminality, dependency, and denial? Or would "legalization" further anchor the Cunninghams in the bottom of our society? The series provokes more questions than it answers.

[To order a reprint of this series free of charge, call the Washington Post public relations department at 202-334-7969.]