CINCINNATI -- The disturbing statistics are shadowed by freshly dug grave sites and ambulance runs that span Hamilton County.
Heroin and powerful opioids continue to ravage local communities, killing 297 Hamilton County residents from overdoses in just the last two years.
But those convicted of selling the deadly drugs are regularly returning to local neighborhoods – facing little to no prison time, an I-Team investigation has found.
The I-Team examined 164 heroin and opioid trafficking cases in Hamilton County from 2016 and found that at least 43 percent of those convicted received no prison time. Instead, they were placed on probation and allowed to return to neighborhoods devastated by the drugs they’ve dealt.
“It makes me mad,” said Amy Russ, whose son Eric Russ died from an overdose in 2015. “To me, the person who sold my son fentanyl killed my son."
While it isn't clear who sold the drugs that killed Eric Russ, his mother is concerned that convicted opioid dealers are regularly returning the communities hit hardest by this epidemic.
Local law enforcement officials agree. The findings of the I-Team investigation, they say, underscore the complex battle local communities and law enforcement are in as they work to curb the heroin epidemic in the face of tight government budgets and crowded jails and prisons.
“It’s embarrassing,” said Dan Meloy, a Colerain Township police officer and director of Public Safety. “This stuff is destroying families, neighborhoods. How do you answer to your community like this? It’s very disappointing.”
“They Don’t Care if Someone Lives or Dies”
Possibly most concerning, local law enforcement officials say, is the rate at which those convicted of selling fentanyl and carfentanil are avoiding prison time.
The synthetic drugs are 10 times to 10,000 times more potent than heroin, and local authorities have warned that their supply might be growing.
Carfentanil fueled a spike of more than 174 overdoses and several deaths in a six-day span locally last summer. All told, Cincinnati saw 85 overdose deaths from synthetic opioids last year – marking the first year in which more people died from the synthetic drugs than from heroin use in the city.
The I-Team’s review found that of 58 cases in which dealers were convicted of selling fentanyl or carfentanil in Hamilton County last year, more than half received probation.
“Not only are these people putting highly addictive drugs on the street – when they add synthetics like carfentanil, they’re doing it solely to make more money,” said Tom Synan, chief of Police in Newtown and chair of the Hamilton County Heroin Taskforce. “They don’t care if someone lives or dies.”
More from the I-Team investigation
As part of its continuing coverage of the impact of the heroin epidemic locally, the I-Team examined approximately 4,000 documents filed last year in several hundred drug trafficking cases in Hamilton County.
Among those, we identified 164 heroin-involved cases in which dealers charged, convicted and sentenced in Hamilton County in 2016
A review of those cases uncovered:
* 56 percent of dealers convicted of selling fentanyl or carfentanil for the first time received probation.
* 43 percent of those who were repeat felony offenders and convicted of selling fentanyl or carfentanil received probation.
* At least nine heroin dealers with prior felony convictions violated their current probation. Seven were kept on probation. Among them is Reco Ricks, a 30-year-old Cincinnati resident who received probation for his fourth drug related conviction. Even though Ricks has repeatedly violated his current probation, Judge Jerome Metz has refused to send him to prison. Metz declined to comment.
* Three defendants who pleaded guilty to trafficking carfentanil received probation, including Jermel Overton. In mid-January, after just three weeks on intensive supervision as part of his parole terms, his level of supervision was reduced.
The findings, Meloy said, show a lack of accountability across the criminal justice system.
“It’s a clear failure of leaders to ….realize that the way we’ve been doing things isn’t working,” Meloy said.
Call for stiffer penalties stifled in Ohio
In the last year, Synan and Meloy have repeatedly asked state legislators to consider beefing up penalties for heroin dealers – especially those selling the more potent, synthetic drugs.
They point to neighboring states like Kentucky, where a proposed bill would amend the state’s laws to create longer prison sentences and steeper fines for convicted dealers of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
“(Dealers) are taking advantage of our communities, and they need to be dealt with differently,” Synan said.
In Ohio, judges can hand down tougher prison sentences to dealers convicted of selling heroin in “bulk” amounts of at least 10 to 50 grams. But criminal sentencing reforms passed in 2011 require judges to sentence nonviolent fourth and fifth degree felony offenders to local jails or place them into probation programs.
Locally, however, most of the overdoses and deaths are the result of dealers who sell in smaller “street level” amounts, Meloy said.
“The current penalties…allow the dealers to serve little time and create an opportunity for them to return to their neighborhoods and streets to continue selling heroin,” Meloy wrote in a letter to state lawmakers more than a year ago. “There is little reason for the cycle of dealing heroin to stop, knowing the reward far outweighs the risk. The people who are addicted and dying each day are paying the ultimate price.”
But the call for harsher penalties has drawn little support.
“It’s partially because there’s no money in the state budget, and partially because there are already so many incarcerated,” said Synan.
Ohio’s prison system has swelled to more than 51,000 inmates – more than 13,000 beyond its estimated capacity.
That’s led officials to implement more community-based parole programs for so-called non-violent drug offenders that emphasize treatment for drug addicts rather than prison time.
“Our prisons are packed,” said Rep. Thomas Brinkman, a Republican from Mt. Lookout, who said he does supports stiffer penalties. “But first, there needs to be a right-sizing of all felony sentencing before we can take this on.”
Until then, mothers like Amy Russ said she shudders at the potential impact.
“As long as these people are let back out on the street, more people are going to die.”
Lisa Bernard-Kuhn is an investigative reporter covering issues important to our community. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @bernardkuhn.
Craig Cheatham is the executive producer and chief investigative reporter for the I-Team. To reach him, email email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CheechCheatham.