Editorial: Time for a drug court here

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

It's been a long time coming, but the chances are improving that Carroll County will be getting a drug court in mid-2005.

The next hurdle will be when the state legislature convenes next year and approves the 2006 fiscal year budget.

Only in about the last three years has Arkansas gotten serious about addressing the growing methamphetamine epidemic in our part of the state. In fact, in 2001, in the central part of the state, where much of the state's political influence rests, law enforcement rarely saw criminal meth charges, and most of the drug-related crimes involved cocaine and some of the so-called recreational drugs, such as Ecstacy.

Meanwhile, in the northern counties particularly, next to Missouri where that state launched a major crackdown on meth about five years ago, we were seeing an acceleration in the number of meth cooks and users.

The idea that meth use is a victimless crime doesn't float. Users tend to be at least verbally abusive to friends and family members, and erratic behavior jeopardizes the well-being of children and the mental health of every one else close to the user. You never know what will "set off" a meth user.

That doesn't take into account the costs to the environment and the medical and legal systems.

Drug courts would allow first-time drug abuse offenders an option to imprisonment, provided they have committed no other felony. With successful completion of drug abuse therapy and rigorous probation conditions, the offender's record can be sealed.

Drug courts have been in place on a trial basis in a few counties for a few years, and the results have been encouraging. Proponents say that drug courts take a significant load off of criminal courts, and offers help to addicts, while keeping those that feed the drug epidemic in the criminal court system,

Unofficial numbers from the county's Eastern Judicial District, where most of our county's meth-related crimes occur, show that the number of criminal meth-related cases jumped in 2003. The numbers do not match perfectly, due to multiple charges and defendants, and some cases involving violent crime ---- such as murder, kidnapping and terroristic threatening ---- do not reflect the drug history of the perpetrators.

In 2001, there were 189 criminal cases filed in the Eastern District with 35, or 18 percent, involving methamphetamine. Ten of those cases involved simple possession, which would qualify for drug court jurisdiction.

Meth cases remained fairly steady in 2001, with 32 of 168 cases, or 19 percent, involving meth. Included in those 32 were 14 charges of meth possession, 11 for meth manufacture, and 25 for delivery of meth. Also, there were seven felony-level marijuana cases and four cases involving illegal prescription drugs.

In 2002, of 127 total criminal cases, 19 percent, or 24 cases, involved meth, the majority being simple possession. Also that year, felony cases included one cocaine charge, four cases involving illegal prescription drugs, and 13 felony-level marijuana cases.

Meth in terms of numbers and as a percentage of criminal cases in the Eastern District spiked in 2003, with 69 of a record 209 cases, or 29 percent. Those cases included 28 possession charges, 30 manufacture-related charges, and 24 counts of meth delivery. Also there were three felony cocaine cases, and 11 involving marijuana. that year

Through mid-November of this year there were 136 criminal cases filed in the Eastern District, with 23 percent of them, or 31 cases, involving methamphetamine. The majority of those cases were for manufacture, with 16 for possession and six for delivery. Several more cases are expected to be filed by year's end as a result of recent meth lab raids.

For years, regional law officials have considered Carroll County as the area's "ground zero" for meth-related crime. Drug courts offer a way to address the simple drug addict ---- regardless of the drug abused ---- while keeping those responsible for visiting the meth plague on our society in the criminal court system.

We appreciate the efforts of law enforcement and the legal community to control the problem. Of particular note are attorney Cindy Baker for raising awareness of the need for drug courts, and Prosecutor Tony Rogers for lobbying the state for a drug court.

Hopefully when the state legislature meets next month, we will receive the funding and authorization so that a drug court can be established here in mid-2005. Meanwhile, we encourage citizens to contact state legislators regarding a genuine need to address the heart of the problem while getting help for the drug abuser who has no other criminal history.

--E.A.L.

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