By MIKE MORRIS
THE PICKET – West Virginia’s program that moves non-violent offenders out of prison and into community treatment programs was endorsed Wednesday by two state judges and a jurist on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
“You have to start finding within yourself what it means to be a responsible person in society,” Justice Brent D. Benjamin of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals said during a panel discussion at Shepherd University.
In endorsing the drug court program, Benjamin noted that the only way an offender can be eligible for the program is with the blessing of the prosecutor and the judge in charge of admissions.
The program has two levels: one for adults and one for juvenile offenders. Participants are drug tested frequently and are required to hold down a job, perform community service, and receive counseling to ensure they are physically and mentally well.
“The concept was that for non-violent offenders, for the non-big time drug offender, maybe there might be a better way of dealing with things,” Benjamin said. “A person may be eligible to avoid prison time if they can go through the drug court program.”
Drugs, especially heroin, have been a major problem in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle in recent years. Jefferson County, of which Shepherdstown is a part, was recently deemed a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, MetroNews reports, allowing it to receive federal help combating the drug epidemic. The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown reports that neighboring Berkeley County received this designation in September 2014.
Drug laws and how drug users should be punished also were addressed by the panel. Benjamin spoke about a Good Samaritan Law, which, explained co-moderator Garrett Spiker, “Provides immunity for individuals who are in possession of small amounts of narcotics at the time they call 911 when they are experiencing or witnessing an overdose.” “Sometimes, necessity requires action,” Benjamin said, noting that sometimes someone who should call 911 may not do so for fear of legal reprisal.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said he favors treatment for non-violent offenders. “If you’re using drugs, you’re sick, and I’m not so sure prisons are the proper place for sick people to be. They need to be treated in appropriate medical facilities,” he said. He distinguished between non-violent and violent drug offenders, “ [if] you commit violent crimes, [there is a] good chance you’re going to go to jail, especially if you land up in my courtroom.”
Mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws, which Washington County Circuit Court Judge Viki M. Pauler argued take discretion away from judges in most cases, have been the target of controversy recently. Pauler said that mandatory minimum sentences are appropriate for the “for-profit, perpetual drug dealer, someone who is not an addict, does not consume their own product, puts poison on the streets, and doesn’t especially care who ends up getting a hold on it.”
The FBI recently broke up a major heroin distribution ring stemming from Maryland resident Brian Hall. Dealers would buy from Hall and redistribute the drugs across the Mid-Atlantic, including in West Virginia. Those arrested last June include residents of Martinsburg, Berkeley Springs, Ranson, Inwood, Harpers Ferry, Kearneysville and Falling Waters.
Co-moderator Joshua Ferguson was enthusiastic about the event. “What is something that we have in this particular area that’s right now getting national coverage? [It is] the hard drug epidemic. We wanted to go from a different perspective, we wanted to get three different judges’ perspectives on the different laws that are on the books,” he said.