Could stricter drug sentencing laws have stopped this crash?

Posted at 7:57 PM, Apr 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-13 07:45:12-04

NORTH BEND, Ohio -- Overcrowded jails and lax sentencing practices are transforming police into "toothless tigers," according to Fraternal Order of Police president Sgt. Dan Hils -- sometimes with devastating consequences.

Doug Schroeder was working at Milt's Transmission Tuesday morning when he heard a thud that startled him out into the street. He discovered the aftermath of what police said was a collision between vehicles driven by Sarah Kern, 31, and Christopher Benter, 27. The impact sprayed pieces of both cars across Three Rivers Parkway, and both drivers were injured.

John Lewis, a nearby resident, reached Kern first. She was trapped inside her car; both she and Benter would would need emergency responders to extricate her from it before they could transport her to University Hospital.

"She had glass all over her face, so I was real gentle and started talking to her," Lewis said. "I tapped her shoulder a little bit and said, 'I'm right there.' I wouldn't leave her."

A news release from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office reported that Benter had drifted into Kern's lane, striking her head-on. Police said they believe drugs were involved.

Records indicate that Benter had a prior conviction for possession of heroin and had tested positive for opiates multiple times, but had been placed on community control probation instead of sentenced to jail time. He served six months in jail for violating parole, but his probation was still terminated in August 2016 -- more than a year earlier than it was originally supposed to expire.

His isn't an unusual case. An I-Team investigation this year found that 43 percent of people convicted of heroin trafficking offenses in Hamilton County received no prison time. Gov. John Kasich said the findings surprised him and pledged to investigate the issue further.

Sgt. Hils said Wednesday night that prison overcrowding contributes to authorities' tendency to hand down probation instead of jail time for repeat drug offenders such as Benter, but sending convicted traffickers back into their communities creates new problems.

"We see every day that the people that we lock up should still be locked up on other charges," he said. "We become toothless tigers, and that's the thing that's really a shame. It's got to be a complete system from beginning to end."

Sarah Kern's injuries were life-threatening, according to police, but she was in stable condition at the hospital Wednesday night. Benter was treated for non-life-threatening injuries.