Criminal docket clogged with illegal drug cases

WARREN – Ohio’s top lawman already declared heroin addiction an epidemic, a problem that is reaching into all counties and the rural communities.

At speaking engagements across the state – including one on Feb. 27 in Warren – Attorney General Mike DeWine is proposing a grassroots fight against the drug that last week he said was responsible for more than 900 deaths in Ohio last year. There were only slightly more than 300 heroin-related deaths in 2010, he said.

”Not only is it in every economic group and every age group, heroin is a drug of affordability,” DeWine said. ”It’s cheap. It has never been this cheap before.”

And the rise in drug-related deaths also is reflected in drug cases prosecuted in court.

In Trumbull County in 2013, the total number of criminal cases reached 950 – a level that prosecutors hadn’t seen since 2005.

Of the 950 various cases, 352 of the cases were for possession or trafficking in drugs. That translates to 37 percent of the total criminal docket.

”That’s 37 percent in terms of indictments on drug charges. It doesn’t take into account the other crimes that are drug-related,” said Maj. Tom Stewart of the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office.

Stewart pointed that many shoplifting, scrap thefts, robberies and even murders can be attributed to drugs and mostly heroin. ”It’s phenomenal,” he said.

Gina Buccino Arnaut, an assistant county prosecutor who handles a lot of drug cases in court, said, ”I’m seeing cases now where addicts are cooking meth to sell in order to buy their heroin.”

Arnaut still has about a half dozen cases remaining on the docket from a massive drug sweep about a year ago that followed a yearlong investigation that drug agents dubbed ”Little D-town” because of the Detroit influence that has surrounded Trumbull County in recent years.

Arnaut saw caseload increase by about 40 with those indicted on state charges after the sweep in mid-April. The arrests – many of them connected to a Youngstown Road S.E. storefront that agents operated and where they traded goods for drugs and guns – caused the total number of criminal cases to creep upward. Another 60 defendants or so in the sweep were charged into federal court.

Arnaut’s boss, Trumbull Prosecutor Dennis Watkins, said the large percentage of drug cases clogging the criminal docket has continued during the first quarter of 2014.

”And the numbers sometimes don’t show the seriousness of the crimes. The criminal justice system is overwhelmed,” Watkins said.

Watkins said it’s always been his position that nonviolent first-time drug offenders can be dealt with through rehabilitation and places like drug courts that have sprung up over the years.

”But the repeat violent offenders linked to drugs or gang activities can’t continue to create havoc,” Watkins said. ”That’s nonsense!

”Serious crimes should mean serious prison time,” he said.