Pubdate: Wed, 24 Sep 2014
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Copyright: 2014 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts

The D.A. Is Pushing Leniency for Drug Users but Prison for One Homeless Addict


A police officer who later earned a law degree, George Gascon had 
never tried a case in court before becoming San Francisco's District 
Attorney. However, San Francisco's former police chief has made a 
national name for himself in the three years he's been the city's prosecutor.

Gascon earned headlines for shaming tech giants into installing kill 
switches on smartphones to stop a rash of iPhone thefts. After 
winning the "Apple picking" battle, he's set about reforming the 
city's role in the drug war.

During his 17 months as San Francisco's police chief, felony drug 
busts plummeted by nearly 50 percent, according to the California 
Attorney General's Office.

In his first two years as prosecutor, Gascon brought felony criminal 
charges against drug users, sellers, or possessors 2,904 times. 
Compare that to his predecessor, California Attorney General Kamala 
Harris, who filed felony drug charges 13,000 times between 2008 and 2009.

Drug cases still make up one-third of the District Attorney's 
caseload, but that's down from nearly two-thirds of charges filed 
during Harris' era.

After publicly decrying the war on drugs as a racist failed policy, 
Gascon has become one of drug reform's most-vocal supporters. In a 
TED talk he gave in June at Ironwood State Prison, a medium-security 
lockup near the Arizona and Mexican border, he called for peace. "We 
can no longer afford to incarcerate people at the levels that we 
have," he said. "We have to end the war on drugs."

This makes the case of Edward Ostrowsky, a 43-year-old homeless 
heroin addict Gascon's office is trying to send to state prison, all 
the more puzzling.

Ostrowsky's two decades of hard drug use have reduced him to a thin 
wisp of a man in a wheelchair. His front teeth are missing and his 
legs are infected, requiring near-daily draining.

He has no violent crimes on his record, but plenty of drug busts. 
Twice in 2008, he was picked up on "buy-busts," where undercover cops 
pose as street-level dope fiends looking to score $10 or $20 worth. 
It sounds small-time, but the resulting sales charge is a felony. 
(The practice has since been almost entirely phased out, but not in 
time for Ostrowsky).

After the busts, he tried to clean up, he tells me in an interview at 
County Jail. He says he was doing fine, but relapsed with just days 
left on his sentence. On the day after Christmas last year, cops 
found him with four grams of heroin and an array of pills, including 
morphine, anti-anxiety benzodiazepines, and Naloxone, a drug used to 
counteract overdoses. He was charged with six felonies, including one 
for his own prescription pills (later dropped).

With his priors, he faced a maximum of more than a decade in prison. 
So the assistant district attorney offered Ostrowsky a deal: 
six-and-a-half years.

"I couldn't believe it," he says. "I'd never even done a year in 
county before."

He went to court 29 times from January, when he was released on his 
own recognizance, and August, when a jury found him guilty of 
possession and a judge sent him to jail.

Ostrowsky is about to enter a court-mandated rehab program for the 
possession charge. He'll be back in court on the sales charge this 
week, with a prison term still on the table.

Gascon is co-author of a ballot initiative, Prop. 47, that would 
allow low-level drug crimes to be charged as misdemeanors. That 
leniency is not for people like Ostrowsky, a Gascon spokesman says in 
an emailed statement. This is a case of an "alleged dealer," he 
wrote, not "someone simply using drugs."

Public Defender Jeff Adachi was unsuccessful at cajoling Gascon into 
dropping the case, which "makes absolutely no sense," he says. 
Ostrowsky's stash was worth about $100, meaning if he was selling, he 
was selling to support a habit. "This is not Scarface trafficking 
drugs in the Tenderloin," he adds.

In his TED talk, Gascon blasted statistics-minded prosecutors whose 
"definition of winning" is "to see how long they can lock you up 
regardless of whether that is going to fix the problem."

The drug war is ending. But before it does, there are still battles 
to be won. Leniency, it appears, has its limits.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom