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Drug crackdown on skid row called harmful

February 02, 2007|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

Defense attorneys are protesting a drug crackdown on skid row, saying petty narcotics users are increasingly being sent to prison instead of receiving treatment that could cure their addictions.

Since September, police and prosecutors have targeted drug dealing in the 5th Street corridor -- an area bordered by 4th and 6th streets, Broadway and Central Avenue -- which police said was a hotspot of drug crimes.

Though law enforcement officials have hailed the effort, defense lawyers say it is harming some who need help.

"They're basically cleaning out skid row by putting people into state prison, where there really isn't room ... either," said Deputy Public Defender Lisa Lichtenstein, who handles numerous downtown drug cases.

She said that since the fall, minor drug cases that in the past might have resulted in possession charges that could lead to treatment have been prosecuted as drug sales, which can result in prison sentences for those convicted.

In many cases, Lichtenstein said, the drug sales charges are against addicts selling a small amount to pay for their own habit. "These are very small amounts of drugs, 10 dollars' worth, maybe $20," she said.

Prosecutors and police say they are indeed becoming more aggressive against skid row drug offenders.

But Janet Moore, director of central operations for the district attorney's office, said the tougher stance is aimed at ending a "revolving door" for drug addicts with prior convictions.

"We're not targeting the homeless," she said.

Lt. Paul Vernon, LAPD spokesman, acknowledged that, as part of the department's recent emphasis on skid row, stiffer penalties are being sought.

"We want to create an atmosphere for downtown -- for skid row -- for people who go there for recovery purposes," he said, "so they can get recovery without being confronted by people selling drugs.

"Of all places in city where penalties should be stiff," he added, "it's down there -- to make sure the people selling drugs there are kept out as much as possible, so that the people who are trying to get off drugs have a chance to."

Robert De Carteret, a prosecutor who handles many drug cases downtown, said that in the past, drug offenses were not prosecuted as aggressively downtown as elsewhere. "We've moved the line to maybe where it should have been all along," he said.

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peter.hong@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jill Leovy contributed to this report.

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