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Gazing into our justice system’s mirror


Dawn Herbel

Brenda Phillips

Take a long, hard look at the faces at right. When you close your eyes and imagine what people jailed on suspicion of drug-related crimes look like, these aren’t the faces that come to mind, but they’re in the first three that show up on a list of Marion County’s currently incarcerated drug suspects.

The two women come from different social strata. One operated a series of downtown businesses in Marion, including a nothing less staid and established than a tax preparation firm. The other lives in a house of less than 900 square feet, valued at just $16,200, on which property taxes haven’t been paid for four years but where drug arrests have occurred far more often than tax payments, even before she purchased the home.

Regardless of their differences, both woman, ages 60 and 64, share a tragic trait. They’re sitting not in some retirement community or senior center but in jail cells normally occupied by much younger, typically male inmates.

Clearly, our system of justice and social support has been far less successful in defending our community from the scourge of methamphetamines than Ukrainian citizens have been in defending themselves against Russian military aggression.

Both may be seemingly hopeless battles, but unlike the Ukrainians, we at times act as if we have given up.

No one can cure an addict, of course, unless the addict himself or herself wants to be cured, but we can and should take away as many temptations as possible and focus more on tough love than on the enabling cycle of repeated plea bargains and broken probations.

Look at the history of one of the current inmates. Charged with drug possession 14 months ago, she ended up getting probation. Meth reportedly was found in her house six months later, but she wasn’t charged at the time because of ill health. She then was charged a month after that and another batch of drug charges. Revocation of probation was sought. Instead, all charges were lumped together into a single case last fall and plea-bargained down to a single offense, for which she again received probation.

Insanity, as Albert Einstein reputedly put it, is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. That presumes, of course, that what the results the justice system actually seek are the prevention of crime and the saving of lives, not merely the clearing of paperwork off attorneys’ and judges’ desks.

Allowing long histories of tax delinquency, especially on sub-standard properties, is yet another way in which we as a society appear to be giving up. It plays out not only in one of these cases but also in another, with the added twist of the property not really being suitable for human habitation still being inhabited by people with a history of being charged for drug use.

Just as the City of Marion finally seemed poised to take action last month, this week the city administrator pulled from the city council’s agenda a report on whether the residents had left the premises within 14 days, as they had been ordered to do.

Ask any neighbor whose gas has been siphoned or catalytic converter stolen. Ask the 76-year-old Hillsboro woman who sleep was interrupted at 3 a.m. by a possibly drugged-up stranger wanting water and a change of clothes. They’ll tell you it’s far more urgent to address the drug situation than it is to rush to approve yet another dollar store.

Promptly foreclosing on delinquent property and insisting on tough love rather than paperwork-sparing plea bargains would be a good first step.

We don’t want to urge greater imprisonment of people whose main crime is a mental health problem with addiction. Jailing addicts merely teaches them new and less legal ways of paying for their habit. However, forced detoxification and counseling at the first sign of trouble, then unpleasant restrictions on their activities to encourage those who refuse help to accept it, would be a better first step.

Otherwise, our community is poised to become little more than the type of drug dens written about in 19th century literature. We have a Dickens of a problem, and the only solution is to bring out into the open, where we all can help solve it.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified March 24, 2022

 

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