Pubdate: Mon, 17 Mar 2014
Source: Star-News (Wilmington, NC)
Copyright: 2014 Wilmington Morning Star
Author: Adam Wagner
Bookmark: (Heroin)


The reality of the number of people tied to heroin trafficking - and, 
more generally, the drug trade - led the criminal justice system to 
shift its emphasis away from users.

"We're not fighting a war on drugs. That was lost years ago," said 
Ben David, New Hanover County's district attorney. "We're fighting a 
war against drug dealers."

As part of that effort, the district attorney's offices in Brunswick 
and New Hanover counties are willing to try cases in federal court, 
where there are stiff penalties and no probation, and to try dealers 
for trafficking, which, depending on the amount of drugs seized, 
carries minimum sentences of from five years and 10 months to 23 
years and six months on a state level. Often, prosecutors see an 
overlap between gang activity and the heroin trade. "It's a bad guy 
drug, and it is something that a lot of the rich kids crave," David 
said. "It's that rare intersection of high demand with a ready 
supply. ... It's mixing people with money with people who are 
desperately poor, and that often leads to other crimes of violence 
like armed robberies, home invasions and sometimes murder."

Some who have been affected at that deadly intersection of drugs and 
money feel harsher punishments for dealers should be on the table, 
including making dealing a violent offense.

Keith Thompson's daughter, Blaire, died of an overdose in 2004. In 
2006, Thompson pushed for a Drug Dealer Liability Act that would have 
allowed families of overdose victims to sue drug dealers who sold in 
the area where the overdose occurred. The effort stalled in the 
General Assembly. Now, Thomspson said, he'd be an advocate for making 
dealing, even at low levels, a violent offense.

"It's the low-level guy that kills your kid. He gets it from the big 
guy. It's the low-level guy that sells it to their friend and the 
friend gets your kid started," Thompson said.

Understanding sentencing for drug crimes can be tricky for someone 
outside of the criminal justice system.

What is clear, though, is that the Justice Reinvestment Act of 2011 
changed the way offenders move through the system. The sentencing 
reform expanded conditional discharge for first offenses while 
limiting a judge's ability to revoke probation and a prosecutor's 
power to try someone as a habitual felon. It is that last portion 
that raises the ire of Chris Thomas, an assistant district attorney 
in Brunswick County.

Under the new sentencing, someone can be arrested three times for 
possession, all of which are low-level felonies that involve 
probation. Then, the fourth time someone is arrested for possession, 
the charge is elevated to what is called a Class E offense, for which 
the suggested minimum sentence is 20 to 25 months.

Prior to the sentencing reform, habitual felons were tried as Class C 
offenders, for which the suggested minimum sentence under the new 
program would be nearly six years in prison.

"As far as I know, we're the only state that has three strikes and 
you've got a curfew and we really mean it this time. It makes 
absolutely no sense to me," said Thomas, who also is an advocate of 
drug treatment courts. Not everyone shares Thomas' view of the 
sentencing, though. "It has frustrated prosecutors. Of course, 
defense attorneys love it," said Ola Lewis, a Brunswick County 
superior court judge.

The relatively light sentencing for drug users does have some 
effects, David said. "In order to put violent people away for long 
sentences, and we do, you let out thieves and you let out drug users 
.. and they're the ones breaking into your cars and your houses," he said.

Many in the criminal justice system, including David and Thomas, 
emphasize treatment for drug users.

The Justice Reinvestment Act gave prosecutors an additional tool to 
accomplish that by expanding conditional discharge for low-level drug 
offenses to all narcotics. Prior to the 2011 reform, the law applied 
only to cocaine and marijuana.

Someone accepting the conditional discharge must plead guilty, enter 
probation for at least a year and complete at least five months of 
drug education. "If I had an individual who's charged with possession 
and is making an effort to help themselves and beat the addiction, 
we're always going to find another way than saddling them with a 
felony conviction," Thomas said. The Justice Reinvestment Act also 
made it more difficult for judges to revoke probation. Whereas 
before, judges could revoke probation for failure to comply with 
terms of the probation, now they can do so only when a defendant runs 
away or is convicted of a new crime.

Furthermore, if a criminal violates the terms now, he can be 
sentenced to 90 day "dips" in county jails, not state penitentiaries. 
It is only upon committing a third violation that he can be sent to 
prison again. "It burdened the counties more because the jails now 
become temporary prisons, in essence," Lewis said.

One way to avoid burdening taxpayers with prisoners is to try to 
treat low-level habitual offenders via drug treatment courts, which 
are active in Brunswick and New Hanover counties.

Carrie Menke, Brunswick County's treatment court coordinator, said 
drug users who have turned to crime to support their habits often do 
well in treatment court, while it can exacerbate the habit for a 
beginning offender A sample drug court client, for example, could 
have six or seven charges, be first arrested before the age of 16, 
start using drugs and alcohol before the age of 16 and have been to 
rehab five times.

In 2012 and 2013, Brunswick County's drug treatment court saw a 14 
percent recidivism rate. Nationally, Menke said, anything lower than 
a 20 percent recidivism rate is considered successful.

"What we always hope as judges is that you have an impact on 
somebody's life in a positive way that makes them want to change," Lewis said.
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