by Lonnie Burton
In a major shift from just a decade ago, rural areas of the U.S. are more likely to send people to prison than urban areas. While big cities have been trying to reduce incarceration rates, large parts of rural and suburban America have gone in the opposite direction. Residents of small counties – those with populations under 100,000 – are now 50 percent more likely to go to prison than those in more populous counties, compared to just ten years ago. In fact, one small county in Indiana is proudly leading the way in locking people up.
That would be Dearborn County in eastern Indiana. The elected prosecutor for Dearborn County and neighboring Ohio County, Aaron Negangard, is unapologetic about being the leading contributor to the state’s prison population.
“I am proud of the fact that we send more people to jail than other counties,” he said. “That’s how we keep it safe here.” So safe that the county has imposed prison terms on over 5,000 residents – more than San Francisco and Durham, North Carolina combined.
The county not only sends more people to prison than other, larger counties, it also imposes sentences that are shockingly long. Donnie Gaddis’ case is just one example.
Had Gaddis tried to sell 15 oxycodone pills to an undercover officer just 20 minutes to the east in Cincinnati, the maximum sentence he faced would have been six months. In cities like San Francisco or New York he likely would have received probation or drug treatment. But Gaddis lived in Dearborn County, Indiana. His sentence after a plea deal? Sixteen years in prison.
“I’ve settled murders for a lot less than that,” observed Philip Stevens, a public defender in Cincinnati.
Gaddis’ case represents a trend in rural counties dealing with an opioid epidemic. As the illicit use of narcotics has spread from large cities, rural prosecutors like Negangard have fought back by aggressively going after drug crimes.
“If you’re not prosecuting, then you’re de facto legalizing it,” Negangard said.
As a result, rural counties – mostly white and politically conservative – are sending more and more drug offenders to prison. In Dearborn County, where 97 percent of the population is white, one in ten adults is now in prison or jail, or on probation.
“It’s government run amok,” remarked Douglas A. Garner, a local criminal defense attorney.
“That is so far out of line with the crime itself and any common notion of decency,” added San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi.
Adachi was reacting to a 35-year sentence given to a Cincinnati man arrested in Dearborn County for selling seven grams of heroin to an undercover officer.
Negangard said the county has some choices for those charged with drug offenses who want to change, including a drug court, veterans court, a jail chemical addictions program and a diversion program, which lets some first-time felony offenders avoid conviction altogether. He added the county is interested in starting a program that combines mental health counseling with a medical device called “The Bridge,” designed to help people detox safely.
But he stands by his belief that stiff sentences and high rates of incarceration have a deterrent effect on would-be criminals, akin to “sticker shock.” Alec Schiering, a recovering addict who was prosecuted by Negangard, happens to agree.
“When I was using and I would have to go get drugs, the dealers would not come to Indiana,” said Schiering, who has completed four years of a 20-year probationary period he received for heroin possession. “They would not come here to give you drugs because they knew the charge was significant compared to Hamilton County [in Ohio].”
Dearborn County Superior Court Judge Jonathan N. Cleary estimated that 225 of the 250 prisoners in the county’s jail have a drug problem, but added that money for substance abuse treatment is scarce. Yet county officials recently appropriated $11.5 million to double the size of the jail and another $11 million for a courthouse expansion project.
“We just can’t let the bad guys go,” Negangard explained.
Apparently not – no matter the financial cost to taxpayers and the human and social costs of incarcerating drug offenders instead of providing them with treatment.
Sources: The New York Times, WCPO-TV, WLWT-TV
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