Heroin bill doesn’t go far enough to toughen penalties, Shaw says
Commonwealth’s Attorney Gordie Shaw says state legislators would have more impact on reducing the amount of heroin and fentanyl being trafficked in Kentucky if they addressed parole and probation eligibility guidelines instead of the penalties attached to those trafficking offenses. “I think they can do a lot more good by addressing the actual release dates instead of saying … it’s a higher class (felony),” said Shaw, who prosecutes criminal cases in Bourbon, Scott and Woodford counties. Senate Bill 14 would increase the penalty for trafficking in any amount of heroin or fentanyl to a Class C felony (five to 10 years in prison) for a first offense and to a Class B felony (10 to 20 years in prison) for subsequent offenses. It also allows anyone convicted of trafficking in less than two ounces of heroin to become eligible for probation, shock probation, parole or conditional discharge after serving at least 20 percent of a prison sentence. Shaw said state lawmakers would have a lot more impact on curbing heroin trafficking in Kentucky if a heroin dealer was required to serve 85 percent of a prison sentence, as violent offenders do. “That’s the only change they’d have to make and they’d have their impact,” he added. Time and time again, drug traffickers are back in court, Shaw said. “I couldn’t tell you how many people we have that it’s their third time that they’re trafficking in either heroin or cocaine or oxycodone,” he said. At that point, prosecutors can finally levy a persistent felony offender charge, which will put a drug trafficker in prison and out of the community for a significant amount of time, he said. Shaw said prosecuting those trafficking cases in federal court can also ensure a drug dealer serves 85 percent of a prison sentence, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office must accept a case for prosecution. “Sometimes they take them and sometimes they don’t,” he said. While it’s frustrating for Shaw and his assistant prosecutors to see drug traffickers back on the street after serving only a fraction of their prison sentences, he said it’s more frustrating for the police officers who make the arrests in these cases. “It’s frustrating for everybody as a whole, knowing that the same individual is back out, back doing the same trafficking that they were doing and running the risk of somebody overdosing because of that,” he explained. If the number of drug traffickers in the community was reduced because of stiffer prison sentences, there would be a significant reduction in other criminal cases on his criminal docket, Shaw said. That will likely happen in Bourbon County after 55 drug traffickers were recently arrested and charged with trafficking offenses. Shaw estimates that “around 75 percent of our dockets (in Bourbon, Scott and Woodford counties) are drug-related” – whether it’s a user writing a cold check or an armed dealer, who creates “an atmosphere for something bad to happen.” He said the cost of keeping a drug dealer in prison would be offset – at least to some degree – by how much it costs for “everybody to do their jobs two and three times” in order to prosecute someone who re-offends after getting probation or parole and serving only 20 percent of a prison sentence for drug trafficking, classified as a nonviolent offense in Kentucky. With the rising number of drug overdoses across the country and gang-related activity tied to drug trafficking, “There’s nothing non-violent about it,” Shaw said. By continuing to operate a drug court in circuit court and recently starting a drug court in district court, drug users are being offered help to address their addictions, Shaw said. “You can’t force them to want to get off drugs,” he acknowledged, “but certainly for the ones who want to stop that life, there are lots of avenues available to them (to seek help) in the court system now.” And he said it becomes a lot more difficult to buy illicit drugs if a community’s drug dealers are taken off the streets while serving long-term prison sentences.