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In Opioid Cases, Local Prosecutors Are Torn Between Empathy and Demands for Punishment
By JOHN W. MILLER |May 23, 2018
Jason Miller, the city prosecutor of Kenton, Ohio, in front of the Hardin County Court of Common Pleas.
Quick Takeaway
  • About two thirds of Kenton, Ohio's criminal cases last year—about 175 felonies and 700 misdemeanors—were drug related.

Judge Gregory Grimslid reeled off the drugs 27-year-old Tyson Kelly had consumed: OxyContin, fentanyl, morphine, marijuana. He had “huffed” an aerosol can. (That refers to breathing in the intoxicants, with the help of a bag, often from a can of spray-paint.)

Thin, bearded, and tattooed, Kelly had been arrested for domestic violence, and had then violated the terms of his probation by using drugs. He got them from somebody on Facebook “during a rough patch,” he told the judge. He was doing better now, he continued, going to college online to learn to maintain heating and cooling systems. He wanted a fresh start.

On the other side of the courtroom, Jason M. Miller, city prosecutor for Kenton, Ohio—a town of 8,200 people—called the case “troubling.” Huffing an aerosol can “is when you really hit rock bottom,” Miller told the judge.

Jason Miller—both city prosecutor and an assistant county prosecutor— in his office in Kenton, Ohio.

Miller (no relation to this reporter) had a decision to make: Kelly still had 55 days left on his original sentence. Should Miller ask the judge to throw him back in jail?

Local prosecutors like Miller are on the front lines of society’s efforts to choose between empathy and punishment in drug cases. Miller has been the Kenton city prosecutor for 14 years—the prosecutor of misdemeanor cases—and he’s simultaneously been an assistant Hardin County prosecutor, handling felonies, for around five years. He’s made thousands of choices affecting the lives of people like Kelly. Local prosecutors like him play a role that combines elements of psychiatrist, cop, career counselor, and parent.

Last year, 175 felony prosecutions were brought in Kenton, and around 700 misdemeanors. Two thirds of all cases are related to drugs in some way, Miller estimates—mainly opioids. About half are for possession or distribution of drugs, while the remainder are mainly drug-related thefts and domestic violence. (As Ohio goes, Hardin County is actually less hard hit by the epidemic than most. While the state averaged 39.1 deaths per 100,000 in 2016, Hardin County averaged about 17 per 100,000 from 2014-2016.)

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City courts, which handle misdemeanors, have fewer resources than the county’s drug courts, which deal with felonies. The drug courts can order inpatient treatment in a nearby rehab facility, while the city usually only has the budget to order outpatient treatment at a Medicaid-funded UMADAOP—Urban Minority Alcoholism Drug Abuse Outreach Program.  The main treatment drugs used in Hardin County are Suboxone (a buprenorphine preparation) and Vivitrol (naltrexone).

Most defendants are drug users, rather than traffickers, though some do support their habits with small-time dealing, he says. Miller has little power to impact the supply of drugs, which trickle in through informal networks from sources outside the jurisdiction, including online. Heroin comes mainly from Columbus, pills from Detroit, cocaine from Lima, Ohio—a town down the road.

Keith Everhart, the county sheriff, and a second source, a former prosecutor who’s now a defense lawyer, both say that Hardin’s opioid problem was exacerbated by visiting doctors in its emergency room, who didn’t know about patients’ family histories of substance abuse. The physicians would prescribe pills repeatedly to the same people, sometimes 100 at a time, they say.

Kenton is the county seat of Hardin, set in the plains of Northwest Ohio, about an hour northwest of Columbus. Its town square is built around the neoclassical, nineteenth century building housing its Court of Common Pleas. Like so many other towns in the industrial Midwest, Kenton lost jobs as companies that made plastics and industrial parts relocated to Mexico and China. Many storefronts have closed, though a Chamber of Commerce official insists to Opioid Watch that business spaces are getting snapped up, and the town’s readying for a retail revival.

The Hardin County Court of Common Pleas, in Kenton, Ohio.

“When I was a kid here in high school, there weren’t drugs,” says Linda Hinton, an assistant county prosecutor who grew up in Hardin. “You would just drink and cruise the square, and the police would regulate how many times you could go around it.”

Cocaine arrived in Kenton in the late 1980s and 1990s, however. Methamphetamine came next, also in the 1990s. That was soon followed by prescription opioids, like OxyContin, and, later, by several varieties of heroin.

Ten years ago, Hardin elected as sheriff Everhart, who had promised to crack down on drugs, including by putting users in jail. He soon decided that that wasn’t working. “We were being tough on drugs, and we got the opioid epidemic anyway,” says Everhart.

Everhart “has taken a lot of flack for going from law-and-order to somebody advocating treatment,” says Dan Robinson, reporter for the Kenton Times. “Law enforcement is caught between a rock and a hard place.”

“If my kids make friends, I have to ask their last names. We welcome everybody into our home, but the last names can give me a lot of information without asking anything else.”

A 42-year-old father-of-two, Miller arrived from Chillicothe, Ohio—two hours to the south—in 2004. Prosecuting in a small town in a high-profile job. “People know who you are,” he says.

He knows who they are, too. “If my kids make friends, I have to ask their last names. We welcome everybody into our home, but the last names can give me a lot of information without asking anything else.”

Miller says he keeps a raw police video of an overdose that he plans to show his kids when they’re old enough.

Miller is not averse to punishment. “I also want the community to be a safe space for my kids,” he says. One challenge, though, is that Hardin County doesn’t have its own jail. It contracts with neighboring Marion County to send people there, but Marion’s capacity is limited. If Hardin County sends more than Marion can handle, it has to pay an extra fee. “When that happens, city commissioners start asking, ‘Why are we spending this money?’”

In the case of Tyson Kelly, Miller decided to recommend no jail time, with a request for his probation officer to formulate a treatment plan. Miller’s decision, which the judge followed, was influenced by a letter from Kelly’s wife—the victim of the underlying crime—pleading for treatment.

Heather Kelly, at the municipal court in Kenton, after a court appearance by her husband.

“I’m at my wits’ end,” says Heather Kelly, a 32-year-old nurse, in an interview. She has three kids: 14, nine, and one, the last with Tyson.  She’s looked into rehab for Tyson before, but it’s expensive. Private treatment costs $20,000 for 90 days. The UMADAOP “is free, but they’re government workers who don’t care as much,” she says.

Tyson Kelly says he wants to get clean. “I think if you can get people to buy into the treatment and want it that’s the best route,” he writes in a text message. “In jail you meet new people and the only thing you have in common with them most of the time is using.”

Filed under: Addiction/ Families