CINCINNATI -- Ohio's director of public safety will personally review the findings of an I-Team investigation that found many heroin dealers convicted in Hamilton County never went to prison for their crime.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich promised the review Monday, saying he was surprised to learn of the findings. Those put on probation in Hamilton County, rather than being sentenced to prison, include previously convicted dealers who had served prison time.
“I'm saying that we will look at it and get to the bottom of it,” Kasich told WCPO.
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.
“That kind of an issue and the judicial system breakdown is something I would take right to the chief justice, and we would take it to the legislature,” Kasich said.
Local law enforcement officials say the I-Team's findings 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.
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.
As part of its continuing coverage of the impact of the heroin epidemic locally, the I-Team examined about 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.
Dan Meloy, a Colerain Township police officer and director of Public Safety, previously told WCPO the findings 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.
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.
And calls 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 Newtown Police Chief Tom Synan. Synan also serves as chair of the Hamilton County Heroin Taskforce.
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.