By Jamie Davis
Crime rates are falling on the national level, but not in Columbia County, Robin Carroll, prosecuting attorney for the 13th Judicial District, told the Magnolia Rotary Club Thursday.
Carroll said the 13th district had 1,644 felony cases filed in 2006, compared to 1,450 in 2009 - a 12 percent decrease.
"There is some good news. Crime rates are falling. Violent crime fell 17.7 percent from 1998 to 2007. Property crime fell 19.9 percent during the same period. Not only is this a trend nationally, but also a trend locally. These trends are not holding true in Columbia County," he said.
Carroll urged the community to establish and support neighborhood watch programs, citing Ouachita County¹s successes with such endeavors. "They do work, they are effective, and when more people are involved in the community, the safer that community is going to be," Carroll said.
He noted that illegal drugs are the most serious crime issue in South Arkansas, adding that Columbia County has a history of handing down long prison sentences in drug cases. Carroll cited the 2008 case of Trozzie Turner, of Magnolia, who was convicted of the manufacture, delivery and possession of a controlled substance and received a sentence of 86 years. "I know life sentences for drug cases has been a big topic of discussion in this community, but let me say, in all of these cases but one, there were plea offers made, and they were for substantially less time than what the person got when they went to trial," Carroll said. "This is what you, as a community, when you sit on a jury, this is your decision, and this is how you have chosen to treat the drug problem when we put these folks in front of you."
Other counties in the 13th Judicial District known to hand down long sentences in drug cases are Calhoun County, which gave 222 years to a recent drug dealer, and Union County, which recently sentenced a drug dealer to 112 years, plus life, Carroll said.
One effective method of dealing with drug crimes in South Arkansas are drug courts, he said, citing a success rate of 80-90 percent and a savings to taxpayers of approximately $25 million in prison costs.
About 1,500 "potential prisoners" are diverted by state drug courts each year, allowing the participant to remain in the community, "working, supporting family and paying taxes," Carroll said.
"Here is Columbia County, you have one of the best drug courts in the state," he said.
While the county has had some success in battling illegal narcotics, a new drug problem has arisen, and law enforcement is working to address it, he added.
Carroll said, "We've got a handle on crack cocaine, meth amphetamines, marijuana. We're turning the tide on that. We are not turning the tide on prescription drug abuse."
Non-medicinal use of prescription pain relievers ranks second only to marijuana as the most prevalent category of drug abuse, he said, adding that 25 percent of emergency room visits are associated with recreational use of prescription drugs.
"Something that is supposed to make our lives better has become a health crisis," Carroll said.
In Columbia County, there were three prescription drug abuse-related deaths in 2009; in Union County, there were four, Carroll said. From 1999 to 2004, accidental drug overdoses in Arkansas increased 195 percent, he added. Carroll said the problem is particularly prevalent among teenagers due to the ease with which prescription drugs can be obtained around their own homes.
"In 2008, teens reported that it is easier to get prescription drugs than beer," he said. "Sixth graders abuse prescription drugs more than any substance other than alcohol and cigarettes."
Carroll said one common form of prescription drug abuse involves grinding down an 80-milligram Oxycontin pill and injecting it intravenously into the blood stream "for a high similar to that of heroin."
"One of these 80-milligram pills is worth $80 on the streets. They're expensive. Teens are now going to heroin to get the same high for less cost," he said.
Of all the prescription narcotics currently available, the most commonly abused is Hydrocodone, he said, noting that the federal Drug Enforcement Agency report that the U.S. used 99 percent of the global supply of Hydrocodone in 2004.
To combat the problem, Carroll endorsed the "Monitor, Secure and Dispose" program. The program urges people to keep track of their medications, to secure them as if they are valuables, and to dispose of unused medicines properly, he said.
In Saline County, Benton law enforcement invited residents to turn in their unused prescriptions, and in a short period of time, obtained more than 52,000 pills, Carroll said. He added that area law enforcement "will do something similar here" at some point in the next couple of months. Carroll said prescription drug abuse is a problem that he takes personally after losing a close friend to an overdose recently.
"I take this very personally, and I take it very seriously," he said. Accompanying Carroll to the Rotary Club meeting was Fran Flener, Arkansas drug director. During a question and answer period following Carroll's presentation, Flener said one method residents could use to dispose of unused medications is to "mix it with your old coffee grinds, dirt, anything that would make it unusable, and throw it out with the garbage."
"But be careful in doing this," she warned. "There are some drugs that cannot be flushed, and that you don't want to put in landfills because they can contaminate the drinking water."
Flener and Carroll recommended the DEA website as a resource of information about which drugs can be disposed of through traditional means, and which ones require special disposal.
In response to an audience question regarding Internet sales of prescription narcotics, Carroll said, "The federal government has done something right. Congress has said that to prescribe narcotic medications, you have to have at least one face-to-face visit with a physician. That's pretty much stopped that."