LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - We live in a place where heroin users can pick up dozens of free syringes at the government needle exchange, next door to the police department in one part of town, then swing by the grocery store to pick up some non-prescription Narcan in case someone overdoses.
"These people are being told the government is going to help you, facilitate, give you the tools to use this drug, but if you're caught distributing it, or using, then we're going to give you harsh penalties," Clark County Prosecutor Jeremy Mull said. "That's an absolutely horrid message to be sending."
How's that working out? WAVE 3 News recently studied every heroin-related criminal case in Jefferson County over a two-month period in February and March. There were 174 of them.
That's about three per day.
Then we waited.
Now, nine months later, we checked to see how they were resolved.
Every one of the heroin possession cases we reviewed, even though they are felonies, resulted in probation, many with court-ordered treatment. Examples included Joanna Tindall, passed out at the wheel, with heroin between her legs, and three babies in the back seat, and Alex Mattingly, who admitted the syringe and drugs were his on Feb. 3, and was right back out getting busted for heroin Feb. 4, with a handgun and a portable police scanner trying not to get caught.
"That's what our office has tried to do the past couple years, really tried to morph into dual personality -- send drug dealers to jail or prison, while at the same time offer a helping hand to people who are addicted to heroin or other substances," Assistant Jefferson County Commonwealth's Attorney Frank Dahl said.
Are they coming down hard on heroin traffickers?
Some got sentenced to one or two years in prison.
But some dealers got no prison time, like Daequan Smith -- who admitted selling heroin along with a handgun and was given diversion -- and Cullin Coleman -- who got two years' probation after being caught selling heroin and other drugs with a large amount of cash.
"There are always going to be evidentiary issues, difficulties in prosecuting a case, getting witnesses to cooperate if a witness is needed," Dahl said. "There's always a gray area, especially when it comes to prosecuting narcotics trafficking."
Many of the heroin trafficking cases aren't resolved yet. Our investigation finds accused dealers are often released pending trial without posting any bond, just a promise to return, even in some of the worst cases, like:
+ Anthony Pierce: Charged with trafficking for the third time, with a stolen assault rifle and 40-caliber handgun
+ Donald Young: Released from prison for drug trafficking and busted again dealing
+ Robert Davis: Charged with heroin trafficking less than 500 feet from Iroquois High School, pleaded guilty, then a judge let him go pending sentencing but he never showed up and is now listed as a fugitive.
"I'd like to see more drug traffickers kept in custody, but it's a tough call for judges to make," Dahl said.
"This is the type of drug, we need to have a take-no-prisoners approach," Mull said. "If you're selling it, you're removed from society for a long time. Spread the message. This is one thing that if you do, the costs to society are so high, you'll be removed from society for a very long time."
What's the cost around here? Last year in Jefferson County, there was an average of two overdose deaths every three days.