By Nita Johnson
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
While area law enforcement agencies diligently battle the drug problem that has besieged the region over the past decade, especially the crank and methamphetamine epidemic, the need for stronger penalties should be on the minds of our legislators.
Statistics show drug abuse is one of the state’s highest health concerns, ranging from overdoses and deaths to long-term illnesses that cost taxpayers and insurance companies millions of dollars each year. Families of all income brackets share the costs, from constantly increasing health insurance premiums to loss of property from thefts, robberies and identity theft. Children are often left without parents who become addicted to prescription and self-made substances that alter their priorities to only how to get the next “high.” The state pays out millions of dollars each year to provide for the victims of drug abuse — either through medical coverage, food stamps, rehabilitation services, counseling, or subsidies to foster families for the children involved.
House Bill 463 provides options other than incarceration for first-time offenders. The overall mission of the bill was to alleviate overcrowding in the state’s jails and give opportunity for outpatient rehabilitation to those truly wishing to make a change in their lives.
However, the actual purpose of HB 463 is being misconstrued in many local judicial systems.
Here, in Laurel County a few weeks ago, a couple was arrested and charged with manufacturing methamphetamine, with a pre-teen child in the home at the time the chemicals were emitting their toxic fumes. While both adults were charged with chemical endangerment to a child, their arraignment hearing set them loose on a surety bond posted by family members assuring their appearance for court the following week. They were released on home incarceration until that date.
Questions surrounding this particular case abound. First of all, why should a couple charged with making methamphetamine IN THEIR HOME be released to go right back to their home? Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep them restricted from the public until the case was resolved?
While this may be an extreme example, it is one that is seen far too often in our court system. I question why someone who falls behind in child support payments is kept in jail until the balance owed is paid up, while someone who endangers the life of themselves, their family, neighbors and law enforcement officials called in to clean up the toxic mess is released and allowed to go back to the environment where they may well commit the offense again. If that occurs, any children or neighbors could once again be endangered.
The fumes from the chemicals used in manufacturing methamphetamine can cause repercussions for many. Law enforcement and public safety officials involved in the cleanup operations from meth labs wear oxygen masks and hazmat suits to avoid health issues from the fumes and residue left behind.
Several law enforcement officials have had to seek medical treatment due to exposure to meth lab fumes and have taken medical leave to recover. The regular citizen, however, has no protection. Fumes from meth labs can infiltrate air vents even if a neighbor seeks refuge inside their home. The fumes can cause irritated throats, breathing problems, and severe headaches from exposure to these fumes, some of which may develop into long-term illnesses or diseases.
While robbing a home or business while armed with a gun or knife is undoubtedly a “violent” crime, so should manufacturing meth be labeled. Currently in Kentucky, making meth is a felony offense and those convicted receive a 10-year sentence for the first offense. As a non-violent crime, the offender has a maximum jail time of 2 and a half years, or 20 percent, and, under HB 463, can receive early probation. Who knows how many early parolees resume their drug making and drug dealing after their release, since felony offenders often face challenges obtaining ‘gainful’ employment.
As a violent crime, meth makers would serve 80 percent of the sentence, which would constitute eight years in jail for a 10-year sentence. Persons who endanger the health of their children, their families, and their neighbors are a risk to public safety and ensuring they do not commit the offense again should inspire lawmakers to initiate stricter penalties. That will save the state millions of dollars in health care costs alone.
Meth continuously rears its ugly head in the lives of good, law-abiding citizens and it should be the priority of our lawmakers to ensure the protection of the innocent and establish stricter penalties for the guilty.