The meth burden

Backlog of cases weighs down judicial system

Gram by gram, methamphetamine is weighing down the judicial system.

It's clogging court dockets and keeping prosecutors, probation officers and judges busier than ever dealing with drug offenders.

In the past couple of years, methamphetamine cases began to be prosecuted with regularity. Before that, there were marijuana cases, a few cocaine cases and the occasional heroin case.

But according to those who work in the courts, the word methamphetamine virtually was absent from the court's files before the year 2000.

A record number of felony cases were filed in Moffat County in 2003. Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Waite, who just left the District Attorney's Office on Monday for private practice, prosecuted nearly all the felonies.

"We had 230 felony cases in Moffat County in 2003," Waite said. "The reality is, I think we had 230 because of meth."

Waite's boss, District Attorney Bonnie Roesink, said he was busier than prosecutors in the Denver metro area.

In 55 of the felony cases, a drug offense was the most serious charge. Of those drug cases, 40 involved distribution, possession or unlawful use of methamphetamine. Those drug defendants were named in other cases, too.

"Those numbers don't surprise me at all," Waite said. "And probably if you looked at it, methamphetamine is involved in some fashion in a pretty fair number of the other cases."

Waite said he knows of pending cases, involving crimes such as burglary, in which methamphetamine played a role.

Mason Siedschlaw, a probation officer for the 14th Judicial District, has seen the parallels between methamphetamine use and other crimes.

"We see that a lot with our burglary, stolen credit card, check fraud cases," Siedschlaw said. "In a huge percentage of those cases, they're doing it to buy dope."

Siedschlaw supervises probation

clients who may have been sentenced for a crime unrelated to drug abuse. But many times, the underlying problem is drugs, Siedschlaw said.

Siedschlaw is spending more and more time supervising drug offenders.

"I've been here in Craig doing this work since 1994, and it has never been to the extent it is now," Siedschlaw said.

The penalties for methamphetamine crimes can be severe -- defendants face two to six years in prison for possession of 1 gram or more. But large caseloads force prosecutors to prioritize and settle some cases before trial with plea bargains.

Residents might not like to hear it, but negotiating with defendants and offering plea agreements is an integral part of the judicial system, Waite said. The prosecutor said he doesn't prefer the situation.

"But on the other hand, with the numbers (of cases) we have, you just don't have a choice," Waite said. "Add up the numbers."

With 230 cases and only 52 weeks a year, the District Attorney's Office would have to schedule four or five trials every week.

"Even if you had one trial a week, which the courts aren't set up to do, nor are we set up to do, you're just not going to get to all of them. It's just impossible," Waite said.

There must be a mechanism to deal with the caseload in a way other than taking every case to a jury trial. That's where the plea bargain comes in, Waite said.

"If we were to go to trial in every case, everything would grind to a screeching halt," Waite said. "That would definitely be the point at which the whole system would break down."

So instead of prison, many of the defendants are sentenced to probation, rehab or community corrections.

Once on probation, individuals are subject to random drug tests and increased supervision. It usually turns into a cycle in which they continue to accumulate cases.

"For the people who aren't staying clean, a lot of them are continuing to commit a large number of crimes to support their habits, whether it's stealing checks or writing hot checks or stealing credit cards or burgling stuff and pawning it," Siedschlaw said.

Community-based sentences often don't solve the underlying drug problems, and repeat offenders frequent the courts until probation is no longer an option, Siedschlaw said.

They cycle eventually catches up with the offenders. They acquire enough of a criminal history to bolster the argument that community supervision isn't working, Siedschlaw said.

"It's frustrating for us, too, when we see the same people over and over again," Siedschlaw said. "It really makes you wonder if the approach you're taking works."

Despite the efforts of police who arrest suspects, prosecutors who take the cases to court and the probation officers who keep tabs on the offenders, the problems associated with methamphetamine aren't going away, Waite said.

"We haven't solved the alcohol problem by prosecuting alcohol crimes," Waite said. "We won't solve the methamphetamine problem by prosecuting users and possessors of meth."

Waite said the District Attorney's Office will continue to vigorously prosecute crimes involving simple possession of methamphetamine. Otherwise, it would send the message that society tolerates the drug. But he doesn't think it's curing the overall problem.

The system is continuously prosecuting users, who may lose more and more privileges in society, but the addiction at the root of the problem isn't going away. Access to the drug is problematic, too.

"I think we're hitting people who are in the midst of an addiction," Waite said. "But we're not shutting down the supply. We're not going after the dealers, we're just not making a dent as far as I'm concerned in that area."

An officer with the Grand Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team said the community often feels as if nothing is being done because busts of dealers and traffickers are infrequent. Those cases involve much more investigation time, the officer said.

"We're making progress, but it's slow progress," the agent said. "These cases (against those who deal large quantities of meth) take a lot longer to build."

Waite said he appreciates the difficulty faced by law enforcement in getting to the source.

"We're talking about something that can be made in your bathroom," Waite said. "It's just a really difficult thing to police."

The probation department tries to help clients get treatment for the addiction that drives the demand for the drug.

There aren't many treatment options, however.

"One thing we certainly see here is that treatment resources are lacking," Siedschlaw said. "If we want somebody to go into an inpatient drug rehab program -- we don't have any. So we end up sending them to Glenwood Springs or Grand Junction or Denver because we just don't have that resource available."

Siedschlaw said he knows of only six facilities in the state where inpatient drug treatment is an option. Some programs are as short as two weeks. Some last three years. The longer programs tend to have better success rates, but offenders are reluctant to commit to such lengthy programs.

Even when the court orders the sentence, it usually fails because the offender isn't sold on the idea, Siedschlaw said.

Also, the longer programs have longer waiting lists, sometimes eight or nine months.

"So for someone who's actively using meth, we're going to expect them to stay out of trouble for eight months until they get a bed date for treatment?" Siedschlaw asks. "It just doesn't happen. So then they're in and out of jail, they're getting rearrested, so then they're getting taken off the waiting list because they're back in jail."

Even when treatment can be arranged, the overall rates for successful treatment are very low, Siedschlaw said.

The result is that many offenders will continue to get in trouble until the only option left is prison.

At that point, there is little sympathy left by anyone in the system.

At a sentencing hearing late in 2003, Judge Mary Lynne James sent a man to prison for five years for meth crimes.

When she spoke to the defendant, she berated him for providing meth to people in Craig.

She called the drug a cancer on the community.

Later, James said, "I used that analogy because it has become enough of a factor in the community that it is a disease eating at the guts of Craig. It is destroying our social health. It has made way too many of our local people unable to function within the rules of society."

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