Mandatory sentence changes draw reaction

PARKERSBURG – U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s mandated modification of the U.S. Justice Department’s changing policies on drug offenders has brought reaction from across the country and locally.

Holder is scheduled to outline the status of the project intended to change Justice Department sentencing policies across the country in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco.

Holder said the U.S. imprisons a higher percentage of its population than other large countries. He said it is because of anti-drug laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s. Holder will reveal a plan to create a slate of local guidelines to determine if cases should be subject to federal charges.

While recently addressing the American Bar Association, Henry Garza, president of the National District Attorneys Association, said Holder’s announcement surprised many.

“Repeating the myth that prisons are full of first-time, nonviolent offenders leaves America’s 40,000 prosecutors, who handle over 95 percent of the criminal prosecutions in the country, shaking their collective heads,” he said. “The reality is that almost every offender, in every state prison, is there for a violent offense or sexual offense, or for committing repeated offenses.”

Wood County Prosecutor Jason Wharton said there is a perception that many first-time offenders and low-level dealers are in prisons.

“That is not accurate, especially in West Virginia,” Wharton said. “In our court system a significant amount of time is put in presentencing investigations and we look at alternatives to jail.”

Wharton said the West Central Drug Court is an example of a local alternative to incarceration for drug offenses.

“Over the past five years it has been an effective program,” he said. “But there is a perception that it involves drug dealers. It is for non-violent offenders with a certified substance abuse problem that contributed to their behavior.”

Wharton said the program carefully reviews each potential participant to make sure it is the appropriate course of action.

“You try to not put someone like that in a target-rich environment,” he said. “One wrong placement could bring down an entire program.”

Donna Jackson, judge over the West Central Drug Court, said the drug court program was designed to keep first-time offenders from finding themselves in and out of the system.

“I can say I do believe drug court was established to fill in those blanks,” she said. “There was always some jail time before; it was a mandatory five or 10 years.”

Jackson said the drug court looks to treatment of the problems to help them stay away from drugs.

“It gives a little more leeway and in drug court we hope to get them off drugs,” she said.

Wood County Sheriff Ken Merritt said in many cases society does not do enough to help those with addictions but strides are being made in the right direction. It is important to get the re-offenders away from society, but help is needed for the first-time offenders to steer them in a different direction, he said.

“I have arrested people on drugs and have been around that and they are dangerous but are different persons when sober,” he said. “I’ve seen them sober and the majority are good people.”

Merritt said without help the first-time, low-level, non-violent offenders will find themselves going through the system again and again without proper help.

“John Doe gets weak or falls in with the wrong people, experiments with drugs and gets hooked,” he said. “He’s going to rob someone and he will get caught and will be tried and go to jail most of the time.”

Merritt said he experienced the same problems in his family with his son.

“He stole $800 to $900 for drugs,” he said. “He got out and was refused a job because it involved unloading wine. He had no job and it wasn’t a week before he was back in.”

Scott Burns, executive director of NDAA, said the group has supported sentencing reform through congressional action to reduce thresholds which triggered mandatory minimum sentences for certain types of drug offenses.

“However, Attorney General Holder’s guidance for U.S. attorneys to simply pick and choose which federal crimes they prosecute is both reckless and unprecedented,” he said.

Garza said on the local level officials look at alternatives to incarceration.

“State and local prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys and members of law enforcement always look at every possible alternative to incarceration, such as diversion programs, re-entry programs, drug counseling, probation, stayed sentences, drug courts and a host of other options before prison is considered,” he said. “We have for decades, but the overriding consideration has been and shall remain the safety of communities we represent and justice for victims of crime.”

Garza said America’s prosecutors will continue to work with legislators, judges, police, victims and criminal defense lawyers to get smart in the fight against crime.

“But we will all have to accept the reality that we will not achieve substantial savings by releasing first-time, nonviolent offenders from prison,” he said. “Because those criminals simply are not sent to prison in the first place.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.