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Conway sees criminal docket driven by opiate crisis

Cary Ashby • Updated Oct 13, 2017 at 9:46 PM

Huron County Common Pleas Judge Jim Conway estimated 60 to 70 percent of his criminal docket is drug-related.

Conway was the featured speaker during the educational Lunch and Learn program Thursday, this time at Berry’s Restaurant. Huron County Democrat chairwoman Sue Lesch coordinates the new program.

“I’d be interested to see how many heroin cases are related to fentanyl; it’s been that popular,” Conway said.

Based on statistics provided Huron County Coroner Dr. Jeffrey Harwood, Conway said he expects to see a rise in fentanyl-related overdoses.

“The overdose rates are continuing to spike,” the judge added. “It’s really a pressing, pressing concern.”

Also using statistics from Harwood, Conway said it’s expected that between 6,000 and 7,000 people in the state will overdose this year.

When asked about the foundation of opiate cases, the judge said between 2005 and 2015 opiates were overprescribed for pain medication and that led to people abusing it and there also are girlfriends of drug addicts who end up abusing opiates.

Conway addressed some of the options he has in handing down sentences for drug cases and statistics compiled by his staff.

Between 2008 and 2010, there were 59 trafficking in heroin cases and of those, 86 to 100 percent of the defendants were sent to prison. Conway said the state law changed in 2011 so that judges were prohibited from sentencing someone to prison for a first-time conviction on a fourth- or fifth-degree felony.

Between 2011 through Sept. 30, there have been 155 trafficking in heroin cases and of those, the percentage of local defendants sentenced to prison dropped to between 40 and 65 percent, according to court statistics. 

As a result, the judge has used probation, intervention in lieu of a conviction, judicial release and Teen Challenge for drug defendants. Intervention means the defendant is placed on probation and has his or her conviction imposed if there is a probation violation. Judicial release is the legal term for an early release from prison.

Conway said he often gives judicial release to defendants who sold drugs for the their own benefit, not for profit, which gave “gives them a little taste of prison.”

“We were having a little bit of success with that,” the judge added.

Conway said he hopes to use grant money to start placing defendants in treatment as early as their arraignments or pre-trial hearings. At arraignment, the judge gives suspects a trial date and determines the amount and type of bond/bail.

“We hope that we get them to treatment earlier,” Conway said.

The judge considers intervention “a good carrot” since he often releases defendants successfully from probation after two years. 

“We were running at about a 75-percent success rate, but I don’t think that will hold because we are putting more people on (probation),” Conway said.

As part of probation, defendants often are sentenced to four six months in a community-based corrections facility. A CBCF is a form of prison which focuses on substance abuse treatment and education.

“It’s a stop between prison, the way I use it,” Conway said. “We’ve had pretty good success with that, too. It doesn’t work for everybody.”

The judge said his favorite option for residential treatment is Teen Challenge, an intense, Christian-based program that runs 12 to 14 months. 

“It’s a faith-based program. I can’t sentence them to it; they have to volunteer for it,” he added.

Often Conway said placing drug defendants in a different environment gives them a “fighting chance” for success and sobriety.

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