News 2 Special Report: Meth Loophole
LIVINGSTON- It's not mystery methamphetamines are a problem in Livingston Parish.
Livingston Parish Sheriff Willie Graves said, "Certainly, per capita, we probably make more arrests on these types of drug-related cases than most people do."
"The meth problem has been an increased factor for us in the district in the last ten years or so," said 21st Judicial District Attorney Scott Perrilloux.
Chief Judge Bob Morrison said, "The overwhelming majority of cases that involve meth, in whatever form, come in Livingston Parish."
But if all three levels of the justice system are doing their best against meth, why is the problem still growing?
News 2 followed the toughest charge for meth-makers, production and manufacturing of a schedule II controlled substance. People caught with an active meth lab usually get the charge. A conviction carries a minimum 10-year prison sentence.
We found in a five-year period, more than half of those cases are reduced or dropped. About Thirty-two percent of those are amended to the charge of creation and operation of a clandestine lab or attempted production and manufacturing. Nineteen percent are lowered to various possession charges or dropped all together.
The creation charge is usually given to people found with ingredients for meth-making, but nothing active. It also allows suspects to receive probation as a punishment instead of prison time.
Parish leaders say these numbers are common and can be attributed to many reasons, but the one reason they all say may be leaving a meth loophole in Livingston Parish is system overload.
Overcrowded dockets and old courtrooms, multiplied by three parishes worth of cases and only eight judges, with about as many prosecutors, forces cases into completion.
Morrison said, "As far as your overall docket, you know that you are constrained to try to move those cases through the system to keep up with 'em."
"You have to take the worst of the worst and work your way down and sometimes the least of the worst, they get somewhat of a break," said Graves.
But some don't get a break.
We found 10% of cases maintaining that initial charge and assigned the ten years time. Eleven percent stayed the same, but saw shorter prison terms. And about 27% of cases are still pending today.
Of the cases reduced, 32% were still closed with a prison sentence. And 24% haven't been in trouble with meth since.
But of all the cases, 31% are repeat offenders, with other meth charges.
Perrilloux said, "Having to deal with the same names over and over is frustrating to everybody in the system and we like to think that if it doesn't happen sooner, it's gonna happen later, everybody's gonna get their due as a repeat offender."
But a solution some say has helped rot away at the repeat rate is drug court, which allows for drug treatment in the place of prison and addresses the issues, instead of delaying it behind bars.
"It's kind of a tough love program, it's not easy to get through it, but those persons who do, the huge odds are they're not going to commit another crime," said Morrison.
"Hopefully, and I think some of your research bares out, that some of those folks who get that break learn from it, benefit from it and go and sin no more," said Graves, "But some don't, and for those who don't.. they'll get theirs the next time."
In all, almost every case we reviewed that was closed, lead to a felony conviction, and that, to parish leaders, says Livingston is tough on meth.
Graves said, "We'd like to see more people accountable for what they're doing, absolutely, but I think all in all, our judicial system, certainly here in Livingston Parish is one that is working."
"I do think everybody is aware of the problem and is being as diligent as they can to do fair sentences and as in the cases that warrant it, to do tough sentence," said Morrison.
Perrilloux said, "Is there room for improvement, always, but we feel like we're giving attention to the meth problem in Livingston Parish."