Wetzel County Prosecutor Seeks More Proactive Treatment
December 20, 2017
A local prosecutor is pushing lawmakers to provide more tools to treat drug addicts before they commit a crime — or suffer a fatal overdose.
Wetzel County Prosecutor Tim Haught highlighted the issue during a recent drug-abuse panel in Morgantown at which he was a speaker, organized by U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va. He envisions a legal provision to treat drug addiction through mental hygiene law that would carry as much weight as self-destructive thoughts by the mentally ill.
Such a provision, Haught hopes, will enable prosecutors’ offices to take proactive steps to provide rehabilitation before it becomes a legal issue — or one of life and death.
“I don’t feel like the federal government or our state government have given us enough tools in the area of treatment and prevention to address the demand side,” Haught said. “We’d need to change the law, and create a legal mechanism to commit people like we do with the mentally ill. Every doctor will say that (with) drug addiction, you are harming yourself.”
“If you’re addicted to heroin, your chance of dying go up. So what I’m saying is, these people are dangerous to themselves and to others — let’s commit them for treatment.”
Haught added he believes inmates with a history of drug addiction should complete the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment program while incarcerated as a condition of parole, to give them a better chance of functioning in society once released.
Haught lamented that until someone is convicted of a crime and sentenced to the drug court program — or incarcerated — the state has few options to assist families seeking assistance with an addicted loved one.
“Everywhere I go, there’s a parent who says, ‘I think my son or daughter … has an addiction problem, and I’m afraid they’re going to overdose and die, or commit a crime,'” Haught said. “And unfortunately, our mental hygeine system, which is really designed to help more with mental health issues, would, in theory, allow the commitment of people addicted to drugs or alcohol. But the problem is, that’s in theory only. … There is no mechanism to compel someone to stay in inpatient treatment for the period of time that’s really necessary to get them off of drugs without arresting them.”
Haught said he is also a proponent of using high bond amounts as a means to keep people incarcerated prior to their conviction, keeping them in an environment with less access to drugs.
“I had a guy who was arrested with a small amount of methamphetamine — not enough to warrant a possession with intent to deliver, except for some comments he made,” Haught said. “What I plan to do for him is, he’s got a string of misdemeanor offenses for petty offenses. Now I’ve got a felony, I charge him with a felony, get a bond high enough to keep him in jail, and I use the jail as a means to dry him out.”
Haught said many addicts continue using not because of a desire to get high, but simply as a means to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
“So I make them go through withdrawal in jail. I’ll put them in and tell their parents, ‘If you love your children, and they’re addicts, the worst thing you could do is bond them out of jail.’ I had it happen here. One of the moms bonded someone out of jail. … He goes to Pittsburgh again, we caught him again. She posted bond again, and he overdoses and dies.”
In Wetzel and Marshall counties, the drug court program offered through the circuit courts has long served as the go-to for the state to assist with addiction. After arrests for non-violent felony offenses, defendants are often able to plead guilty to their charges, and participate in the drug court program.
Frequently, if the defendant completes the program and serves six months behind bars, they will be able to have the charge reduced to a misdemeanor and go on probation, which Haught said treats their addiction without leaving a felony conviction on their record.
Marshall County Prosecutor Rhonda Wade agreed with Haught that action needs to be taken.
“We’ve got to do something, because I feel like we’re rolling a pebble up a hill, with what we’re doing currently,”Wade said. “I think the problem with the situation — the way it is, people are getting help from us only after they get in trouble. They don’t necessarily want help, they’re only doing that to avoid alternatives like jail.”
Compounding the problem, Wade added, is that people unwilling to get help for their drug habits often go on to commit other crimes. In Marshall County, a large portion of grand jury indictments are for alleged crimes linked to drug abuse, from property crimes committed by those in need of drug money to parental neglect.
Wade said in addition to better pre-arrest programs — which she said she would support, if Haught continued to pursue them — correctional facilities themselves would benefit from programs on the inside to help inmates improve themselves and avoid falling back into old habits once released.
“At some point, we need to try to force the cure on them, for those reasons,” Wade said. “I think we need to have more programs in the jails. I think we need drug court in the jail, mental health programs in the jail — programs where these people learn a different lifestyle. It’s breaking the cycle.”
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