Felony filings rise in Fairfield County to battle drug epidemic

Cracking Down on Drugs
Battle against drugs in Fairfield County
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The Fairfield County prosecutor says his office is filing more felony cases than ever before.

Last year, there were 834 cases filed in the courts. That's a 54 percent increase from the year before.

Prosecutor Kyle Witt says it’s a step forward in the fight to end the drug epidemic.

“There is an expression in criminal...that says justice delayed is justice denied,” Witt said.

Witt took over the Fairfield County prosecutor's office 18 months ago with a mission to hold people accountable, including people caught with drugs.

He says too often, police would have to release the arrested individuals without formal charges because lab results were still pending. Not anymore.

“We charge based upon what the officer sees during an investigation,” Witt explains. “What they encounter, what the suspect might i.d. the drug as, what the officer may i.d. as the amount of that drug, so we have information that is sufficient to charge that offense.”

Witt says the new effort is paying off. Before he took office, the prosecutor’s office convicted 218 people. In the following year, there were 413, nearly double the amount.

At the end of May, there were 193 people sentenced with drug convictions, which is on par to match last year’s numbers.

“Not only is it changing the way law enforcement is doing things, it’s changing the way the community views what we do and how we do it,” says Commander Dennis Lowe with the Fairfield-Hocking-Athens Major Crimes Unit.

Commander Lowe says it’s a sense of partnership that allows his team to focus on additional efforts to stop the flow of drugs into Fairfield County.

Lowe says there are three major components to what they do: (1) SCRAPS, which stands for Street Crime Reduction and Apprehension Program; (2) Project F.O.R.T., which is the Fairfield County Overdose Reduction team; and (3) major investigations, which focuses on the Mexican cartel infiltrating southeast Ohio with meth, heroin, and marijuana.

“Our task force is really focused on the supply side of drugs coming in to Fairfield County,” explains Lowe. “We are looking at mid-and-upper level traffickers who are essentially wholesalers distributing for cartel folks.”

But Lowe says it’s the smaller drug investigations that makes the everyday difference for communities, which is why the SCRAPS team checks out 8-10 anonymous complaints a week.

“Maybe in the overall picture of drug trafficking and supply of drugs, that person selling a gram of meth or heroin isn’t a big deal, but for the person living next to them in that neighborhood, it’s the only deal,” says Lowe.

Both Lowe and Witt admit that solving the drug epidemic is a slow and steady process where you can’t incarcerate your way out of the crisis. Project FORT was created to make sure people who are looking to turn their live around are connected to the right resources so they don’t relapse or stop the recovery process.

Part of the process is making sure drug offenders have constant court supervision, which is why Witt believes his new method of filing charges while drug lab results are pending is critical to the process.

“If you delay it, you risk that person may overdose, that person may commit another offense or that someone else will be harmed or injured,” says Witt. “It’s not a failsafe to charge earlier but it connects them with supervision while they are on pre-trial release with the court to say we're at least taking steps to engage with this person and supervise them.”