Watch now: Meth Mountain - Day Three: Crime & Punishment
KINGSPORT — Of the crimes that pass through the Sullivan County court system, 90% are related to drugs.
Someone is either buying or selling illegal narcotics, stealing drugs from a business or home, committing burglaries or robberies to get money to buy drugs, or physically attacking someone while on or because of drugs.
This sobering message comes from two men who deal with these crimes and their victims on a daily basis: Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus and Assistant District Attorney Gene Perrin.
“Our caseload of criminal activity has far exceeded what (prosecutors) we’ve been supplied with,” said Staubus. Sullivan County has 17 prosecutors, which includes one (Perrin) whose sole responsibility is overseeing the prosecution of drug cases. Staubus said his department clearly needs more resources.
When Perrin first came to Sullivan County, a big caseload was considered 100 to 120 cases. Today, the assistant DAs are carrying 250 to 350 in criminal court, and on general sessions court days (Tuesdays and Thursdays), it’s not uncommon to see 20-page dockets.
“We don’t have enough prosecutors and narcotics officers to deal with the supply (of drugs) coming in,” Perrin said. “As a career drug prosecutor ... I’ve been extremely frustrated the last few years as more and more money is poured into the treatment side and less and less money on the enforcement side.
“If you don’t turn off the spigot, the tub is going to overflow no matter how many cupfuls you bail out.”
Like anything else, the preferred drug of choice has shifted over the years. When Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy first got into law enforcement, criminals were dealing in cocaine. It then shifted to Oxycontin, to synthetic drugs and meth (cooked in homemade labs) and finally to opioids. However, since the federal government heavily regulated opioids in recent years, criminals have turned their sights back to meth.
But they’re not cooking it in motel rooms and in vans out in the desert. It’s coming across the southern border every day by the pound.
“We’re getting meth that’s purer, cheaper and a whole lot stronger, and they don’t have to produce it at home,” Cassidy said. “It’s all coming from Mexico, and they’re distributing it all around the bigger cities.”
Home-cooked meth typically went for $80 to $100 a gram, an 8-ball for $300 to $350 and an ounce of meth for $1,000 to $1,500. Meth cooked in Mexico goes for $20 to $50 a gram, an 8-ball at $80 to $120 and an ounce is around $400. A prime example of supply and demand.
AN INCREASE IN CRIME
Last year, 64,565 cases were reported to the United States Sentencing Commission, the independent agency in the judicial branch that tracks and reports sentencing data within the federal courts system. Of those cases, 16,501 involved drugs, and of the drug-trafficking cases reported in 2020, approximately 46% involved methamphetamine.
Over the past five years, the number of meth trafficking offenders has increased by nearly 14%, the commission reports.
On a local level, law enforcement agencies in Sullivan and Hawkins counties and in Kingsport have reported an increase in illegal drug crimes in recent years, especially over the past 18 months as the country was battling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kingsport Police Chief Dale Phipps said his department is seeing a huge increase in drug use and drug crimes since the start of the pandemic.
“Our call volume decreased probably 30%, but some types of calls went up,” Phipps said. “Domestic, intoxication, aggravated assault … once people were confined at home, they were going out to get a larger supply (of drugs) to last you.”
In 2020, Kingsport’s vice unit made 152 arrests and seized more than $1.8 million in illegal drugs, with more than half being meth ($955,000). Kingsport also seized nearly $670,000 in marijuana and $195,000 worth of heroin.
From September 2020 through July 2021, the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office seized more than 21 kilograms of meth with an estimated street value of $1.3 million. The second-highest amount of drugs seized during this time was heroin (32.6 ounces with a street value of $138,000).
In Hawkins County, deputies performed 24 drug seizures over the past 12 months, reporting 198 cases of manufacturing or selling meth with an additional 43 cases of meth possession.
From August 2020 to the present, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency seized nearly 80 pounds of crystal meth in Northeast Tennessee, with a street value between $2 million $3 million.
“We have also seized some heroin and a number of counterfeit prescription pills, both of which contained fentanyl,” said Kevin McWilliams, the public information officer for the Louisville Division of the DEA. “The majority of the fentanyl that we see in this area comes in the form of counterfeit pills or it’s cut into heroin.”
THE RECOVERY COURT OPTION
One option within the Northeast Tennessee judicial system that’s making a difference in the lives of drug addicts is something called recovery court, a 12- to 18-month program that includes inpatient treatment, job training, building a support system and life skills to get people off drugs and return them as productive members of society.
Recovery courts can be found in all three judicial districts in our region, covering the nine counties in Northeast Tennessee, and are based on 10 key components from the National Drug Court Institute. All of the courts are similar but unique at the same time.
The program is considered an alternative sentence to probation and jail and is a post-conviction court, meaning a person cannot enter it without being convicted of a crime. Successfully completing the program does not expunge a person’s record.
According to the judges who oversee the recovery courts in our region, the program is making a difference.
“If they can graduate, one year later 90% are drug free, with jobs, they have their children back and are no longer a tax on the system,” said Judge Stacy Street, who oversees a recovery court in the First Judicial District. “They’re productive members of society and more importantly, they’ve not committed any more crimes.”
Before someone is allowed to enter recovery court, an assessment must be done. Court officials use the Tennessee Risk Assessment model, which determines if a person is high risk, high need. A battery of questions is asked about a person’s criminal history: — when they started using drugs, their criminal attitudes and substance-abuse history.
Based on the answers, court officials can tell if the person is ready to submit to the program and willing to make significant changes. The program accepts addicts, not drug dealers.
If approved, applicants enter an inpatient treatment facility for 30 days or maybe longer depending on their needs. Afterward, the person will attend an intensive outpatient program for a number of weeks.
This is includes building job and life skills and developing a strong support system (friends, family, co-workers) to sustain them in the coming years.
“You’ve got to change where you hang out and who you hang out with if you really want to make a change,” said Judge Jim Goodwin, who oversees the recovery court in Sullivan County. “We try to help them develop a more appropriate support system.”
Goodwin, who hails from Carter County, has been a judge since 2014. Soon after, he put a team together and started from ground zero building a recovery court in Sullivan County. The program opened for business in the spring of 2015 and can accommodate 20 to 25 people.
Currently, there are 14 enrolled in the program.
“Recovery court is the last chance for a drug-addicted individual who’s in the criminal justice system before they go serve a prison sentence, which is quite different of what I thought it was when I took the bench,” Goodwin said. “I thought we’ll get all these people on the front end. They’re just getting involved in the criminal justice system. We’ll get them off drugs, and they won’t come back. That’s not what it’s geared for. It’s to address the high-risk, high-need population.”
Local district attorneys and judges have joined forces and are making a sales pitch to our region on how best to spend the $21 million opioid lawsuit settlement. The idea is to create a regional treatment facility at the Carter County Annex, a 180-bed, minimum-security facility that closed in July due to its cost-effectiveness.
Goodwin said he supports the proposal and believes it should be an all-inclusive facility with recovery and mental health services and employment training all in one location.
“Ninety percent of the people who go through the program, you start to see improvement and the light comes back into their eye when they do something good,” Goodwin said. “When you see (that) and they realize there’s more to life than sticking a needle in their arm or popping pills, it feels good.”