City Desk

D.C.’s ‘Criminal Hell’ and the Way Out

D.C. Criminal Disparities

For most college freshmen, being enterprising means setting your sights on a study abroad program, or maybe throwing in with the Future Business Leaders of America. For first-year Georgetown University student Charles Smith, and his buddy, first-year University of Richmond student John Perrone, it allegedly meant converting a GU dorm room into a drug lab.

According to cops, the duo had garnered the chemicals necessary to manufacture an illegal hallucinogen known as DMT. One early morning drug bust later, they were in cuffs. The most recent development in their saga? According to court papers, they've struck a deal with prosecutors regarding the October arrest. Likely in hopes of staying out of prison, the two will plead guilty to some agreed-upon charges. The U.S. Attorney's office and lawyers for the men declined comment.

Considering Perrone and Smith were able to swing big-time representation in the form of lawyers G. Allen Dale and Danny Onorato, the deal is likely to be sweet. And dealing (pun intended) is the way to go for the would-be kingpins, as they were caught red-handed. Smith had chemicals in his dorm room and Perrone in his car.

It probably helps that neither Smith nor Perrone seems to have a record, and that their status as students makes it easier to make a folly-of-youth argument.

According to a Jan. 20 filing by prosecutors, the two faced two counts of unlawful manufacturing of a controlled substance. One charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, and another a maximum penalty of 30. But sentencing guidelines suggest 18 months is a far more likely maximum sentence. Though a police source says drug manufacturing usually earns a suspect prison time, City Desk is betting Perrone and Smith will get probation.

CBS journalist and Georgetown resident Howard Arenstein stands as a good reference point for making a prediction. Also busted in October, the reporter had several pounds of marijuana and 11 mammoth marijuana plants in his backyard when police raided his home. He was slapped with a possession with intent to distribute charge.

Sitting with lawyer John Zucker at a November hearing, a silver-haired Arenstein, dressed in a charcoal suit, looked at ease and even cracked a bright white smile now and then. Zucker, who's made a career of representing journalists, was evidently able to do some maneuvering on Arenstein's behalf. Arenstein pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and got off with probation.

Arenstein can consider himself privileged; in 2010, the District had the highest incarceration rate in the country. Of course, white and of means, he's on the happier end of a couple of statistical disparities. "Poverty does not create crime, nor is wealth and income necessarily a predictor of involvement in the justice system," says a report put out by the Justice Policy Institute on D.C.'s justice system, "however, evidence shows that people with the fewest financial resources are more likely to end up in prison or jail."

The other personal detail that might increase your chances of landing behind bars in D.C. won't surprise in the least: Skin color. Nine out of ten people incarcerated by the District are African American, says the report, despite the fact that African Americans only make up 54 percent of the city's population.

That kind of disparity has inspired the socially conscious among us to support various good-intentioned programs aimed at helping people make better choices. While that's good, if we really want to keep poor black people out of the jaws of the criminal justice system, we might consider hiring an army of high-priced lawyers instead. They'd get the incarceration rate down forthwith.

When his client was in lock-up, Dale told City Desk his young and slight client was in "criminal hell." Many of those the young man spent time behind bars with were likely in the same Hades. They just won't be leaving quite as soon.

Photo by walknboston via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

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  • Jim Ed

    "Poverty does not create crime, nor is wealth and income necessarily a predictor of involvement in the justice system,"

    I'm no Sociologist, but something tells me that statement is either a complete load of crap or is taken completely out of context. I'd love to see the facts that back it up, as widespread anecdotal evidence would point otherwise.

  • sigmagrrl

    OF COURSE being white helped! DUH! White privilege will always exist, and the assumption of guilt will always be automatically applied to minorities until blind justice actually comes into existence. Until then, jails will be full of the poor and minorities and whites will get off scott free.

  • noodlez

    IM AT A LOST FOR WORDS!!!!!!

  • nivin

    "Arenstein can consider himself privileged; in 2010, the District had the highest incarceration rate in the country."

    Not just the country. DC Has the highest rate in the world, and has since before home rule.

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  • sedcdude

    SAYS A REPORT...

    "Poverty does not create crime, nor is wealth and income necessarily a predictor of involvement in the justice system,"

    SE SAYS...

    The hopes of WEALTH (GREED) does create the motivation to commit crimes, and yes poverty, income and RACE are predictors for who and what becomes involved in the justice system FULLY!

  • Drez

    What's a typical first time PWITD sentence?

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