BENTON — A familiar face has been coming around Franklin County more often: Methamphetamine is making an unwelcome comeback, officials say.
Franklin County Sheriff Donald Jones said in the past year, he has seen meth cases come across his desk more often than in recent years. In one 13-month period from, January 2016 to February 2017, he made 40 meth-related arrests. This is up from 26 in 2015. In fact, on Feb. 8, the 100-person occupancy jail in Franklin County held 25 inmates on meth related charges, three of who were charged with Class X felonies.
Jones said he sees this as the third wave of meth in the region, with the first coming in the 1990s.
Jones said this number of arrests is shocking, because his officers have to be generalists when it comes to their jobs.
“That’s from an agency that’s not just targeting drugs,” Jones said. He said that a lot of those arrests came as a result of something else — a traffic stop, a separate outstanding warrant, etc. Jones said the past few months have particularly seen a spike. He said he knows this not just from the arrests that he sees, but he has heard it first-hand.
“I’ve interviewed some people we have had here that were arrested for methamphetamine-related crimes and they have told me, they themselves have told me, it’s everywhere,” Jones said.
More is still more
To say meth is on the rise may sound a bit more dramatic than it needs to. Master Sgt. Darryl Grammer of the Illinois State Police points this out.
“It never really went away,” Grammer said. He said the peaks and valleys in meth use are less like the Himalayas and more like the hills of San Francisco. There is an up-and-down, but it’s not as dramatic as one might think. Still, more is still more.
The Sheriff’s Office is the not the only group active in making these arrests, either. The Southern Illinois Drug Task Force, run by the ISP, opened 12 meth investigations in Franklin County in 2015, which lead to 36 arrests. In 2016, it opened 29 investigations leading to 31 arrests.
Grammer — who until February of 2016 ran both the SIDTF and the Meth Response team, a dedicated meth unit run by the ISP — said those are targeted investigations that have typically focused on conspiracies to make and/or sell meth, which can be done almost entirely with goods purchased from a local Walmart. Grammer did not discount what Jones has been seeing these last few months. From his seat, he said he has seen a decline in meth arrests, but he said it's not all good news.
The numbers from the MRT look pretty good. In 2009, there were 123 clandestine meth lab seizures in the 31 Illinois counties served by the MRT. This number peaked in 2012 with 340, and last year there were 150. On paper, it would seem like there would be fewer labs to bust, leading to the decline, but Grammer said there is a lot that factors into that. Part of it, he likes to think, is due to the hard work put in over the years putting so many people in jail for manufacturing and selling the highly-addictive drug, but he said funding has something to do with it.
Master Sgt. Jonathan Edwards agrees. Edwards, who now runs the MRT and SIDTF, said several years ago, ISP Zone 7, which is comprised of 31 counties in Illinois, had two dedicated meth teams, both staffed with a master sergeant, a sergeant and five agents. Now there is one unit and it has three agents and one master sergeant.
“What we are trying to do, we are trying to make every resource we have available to us count,” Edwards said. Grammer said the state’s budget impasse has not helped. Without the proper funding at a state level, it really has hampered departments’ abilities to do the long-term investigations as often as they may need to.
“I just know everybody in the state of Illinois is in the situation I’m in,” Grammer said, adding that five people are often doing the job of 10.
There is one other reason that can be attributed to the decline in arrests in the ISP’s data, Grammer said. Meth found locally is, by-and-large, not cooked here at home, he said. It is being shipped in from Mexico as crystal meth, a more refined, and potentially more potent, product. He believes this development has come about as a result of intensive efforts in recent years to crack down on meth production locally. He said with so many offenders getting big sentences for making the drug, it has scared some of the locals into simply purchasing premade product and selling it or, hopefully, getting out.
The real numbers
Some may say 71 arrests really is not that many over a year, particularly in a county with nearly 40,000 residents, according to 2015 U.S. Census estimates. With these numbers, this would come out to just .0017 percent of the population.
Jones said those 40 arrests from his department came from unrelated stops. They, for the most part, were not the result of targeted operations. He said he believes that number would be considerably higher if he were able to dedicate a team just to cracking down on the drug.
Also, and possibly more important, the number of affected lives is not limited to the people who are arrested. It causes serious strain on families, Jones said. When these numbers are factored in, 71 balloons to a much larger figure and the toll of even a small spike in meth activity becomes far more dramatic.
Matthew Davis, drug court officer and probation officer for Franklin County, said the number of people affected by these arrests transcends well beyond just those being charged.
“You are looking at over 50 people with each one,” Davis said, factoring in all of the family, friends, law enforcement and court officials involved with each case. This would take that 71 figure from 2016 to closer to 3,550, or around 9 percent of the population of the county.
This huge impact gives Jones pause.
“I worry about our community,” Jones said of the recent uptick in meth cases. He said drug use has its fingers in a lot of pies.
“It contributes to a lot of crime,” Jones said. He said that if the county’s drug problem were properly under control, petty theft, burglaries and domestic violence would all likely see a drop as well.
Franklin County Assistant State’s Attorney Phillip Butler said the same thing.
“There are a lot of other arrests that occur, and subsequent charges filed, in which the offender may not possess meth at the time (of) their arrest. However, their actions to commit the criminal offense which they were charged with are motivated by their addiction,” Butler said in an email to The Southern. “Property crimes such as theft, burglary, and forgery come to mind.”
Butler, Edwards and Jones all said the effects of even just one meth- or drug-related arrest is not isolated to the person in handcuffs.
“It tears family apart,” Edwards said. Butler gave an example, showing the concentric rings of harm and illustrating Davis’ point.
“They may not be able to post bond right away, so who looks after their child? If there is an appropriate relative then that person would do it, otherwise the Department of Child and Family Services would likely get involved. That child would likely be placed into the temporary custody of DCFS and they would find a placement for the child,” Butler said. Butler said this same example can sprawl even further.
"This could also have an affect on school personnel, the child's friends, and the caseworkers who are providing services to the offender and the minor child,” he said. Edwards and Jones both said seeing this kind of thing is just part of the job, but it never gets easy.
“If I had to put a word to it — it’s heartbreaking,” Edwards said.
Change is needed
Jones has no idea why anyone would head down the road to using meth, but said there need to be more options for dealing with addicted people.
“You can’t arrest your way out of this problem,” Jones said. He said this is a symptom of a bigger issue. Jones said law enforcement is not the only party that has a hand in helping fix it. Jones, Grammer and Edwards all said education takes a serious role in curbing meth and other drug-related problems. But again, manpower comes into play. Jones said he does not have enough officers to focus just on education, so he partners with local schools.
When Jones looks at his jail, just a few hundred yards from his office, he is at a loss of what more he can do for some of the people sitting in those cells. For those who come in with serious substance abuse problems, all he said he can do is dry them out, or help them get clean through force.
“That’s really the only service we can provide here,” Jones said. After that, he said there is very little he can provide, and helping inmates even stay safe in his jail as they await trial is extremely challenging. Jones said some can pose a serious threat to other inmates, which leads to isolation. But, if the jail is near or at capacity, that is not an easy thing to accommodate.
“A lot of these addicted people have underlying mental health issues,” Jones said. “We don’t give them any help. We lock them up. We send them to prisons.”
This is where he said he really feels like change is needed. He does not pretend to have all the answers and completely recognizes life change has to be wanted for rehabilitation to work. But Jones said locally he wants to see more care available to more people. That means low-cost treatment for people before they come before a judge.
“I don’t think our problems with addiction are properly treated. There’s not access to care like there should be,” Jones said. He can remember many people coming to him after a loved one has gone to jail, begging for help. And all he could say was to get them out of jail and get them into treatment, but he couldn’t give them much more than those words.
Butler said his office does what it can. Through the Franklin County Drug Court Program, Butler said some who come through the court with addiction problems are able to enter the intensive probation program where they are guided to find the help they need and given tools to help themselves stay clean after probation is completed. There are criteria for participants though. Criminal history, honesty during screening, willingness to participate and prior treatment are all taken into consideration.
Davis oversees the program and said those accepted — which hover around 40 to 50 since it started in 2013 — are given several treatment options and probation for certain drug-related, nonviolent offenses. They are given the option of inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation, which is billed to each participant. Davis did say the county can offer assistance for travel costs, and some treatment facilities do offer grants for treatment.
Jones said he would still like to see more.
“We are always going to have to arrest people, but we need to find some other ways too, some other options to deal with people in the system,” he said. It is a question of how people want to spend their money, Jones said. Do they want to spend it on more prisons or on healthcare for those who come through the system?
As Jones and his colleagues in law enforcement look at the numbers coming across their desks, hear the talk coming from Springfield, and answer calls from the community reporting the next emergency — knowing they might not always have the perfect answer — they are left with one option.
“We soldier on,” Jones said. “We do the best we can with what we’ve got.”