GREENFIELD – A woman caught with syringe in her car. A man growing marijuana in his home, another making meth. A teen found with a baggie of heroin.
Those are examples of the case files that land on Dave Thornburg’s desk at the Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office every morning. A veteran of the office with more than a decade of service under his belt, Thornburg has been appointed to oversee all drug-related cases prosecuted in Hancock County.
He’s the first prosecuting attorney to focus all of his time on convicting offenders using or selling drugs, and his promotion comes amid a countywide crackdown on drug-related offenses that has resulted in an influx in criminal cases – a bump of more than 200 percent in two years.
Thornburg said he knows the community wants drug offenders to be held accountable for their actions. He knows the interest in those cases is high; he’s heard the pleas for stricter sentences; and he, too, wants dealers off the county’s streets, he said.
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So, as he settles into the new position, he’s working to implement procedures he hopes will yield the results residents want – consistent and appropriate punishment for drug-related crimes.
In 2015, leaders of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department and Greenfield Police Department announced they rekindled a countywide effort to get dealers off the street after a more than five-year hiatus.
After a city-county drug task force dissolved in 2010, Hancock County went without a concentrated drug enforcement effort for years as a result.
But since announcing they renewed their effort to crack down on drug dealers nearly two years ago, the two departments collectively have hired three undercover narcotics detectives to investigate drug-related crimes in the area. And that’s resulted in a spike in cases, records show.
Filings for drug possession and drug dealing dipped to a total of 74 in 2012, prosecution records show.
Now, with the city and county’s drug detectives in place, charges of drug-possession and dealing rose to 440 in 2015 and 688 in 2016. In the first seven months of 2017, they racked up 568 drug-related charges, records show.
Prosecutor Brent Eaton said he decided to turn Thornburg’s attention to prosecuting drug crimes after receiving positive feedback from law enforcement about giving two other staff members a caseload focusing on one type of crime.
Two years ago, the prosecutor’s office secured grant-funding to create a position dedicated to prosecuting crimes against women and children. Eaton said the post has helped streamline domestic violence and sexual assault criminal cases to ensure they’re all handled with the same tenacity to get a conviction. He hopes having a single prosecutor handling drug-related offenses will garner the same success.
The position also gives police detectives one point of contact in the prosecutor’s office, which officials hope helps to create a better dialogue between officers and attorneys.
Already Thornburg has started meeting once a month with the county’s three undercover narcotics detectives. At these meetings, Thornburg reviews new case laws that might impact officers, and they discuss pending court cases and ongoing police investigations. He’s also able to tell them what tidbits of information they gave helped him in the courtroom.
For example, some investigators were leaving the weights of the substances they confiscated from suspects off the charging documents they filed with the prosecutor’s office, Thornburg said. Without that bit of information, he’s stuck filing the lowest-level felony count allowed by law; with it, he can file a criminal count more specific to the accused crime.
Thornburg also has stepped onto boards overseeing the county’s lower-security community corrections facility and county-funded treatment programs, like drug court and the heroin protocol, in hopes of learning more about what the stakeholders of the groups expect of defendants sentenced there.
Through these interactions, Thornburg said he learns more about his defendants, and he uses the information he gains — facts that might not end up in a court document — when negotiating plea agreements or taking cases to trial, he said.
Local police say they are glad to be forging a new partnership with the prosecutor’s office.
Greenfield detective Lt. Randy Ratliff said he’s hopeful the position will lead to consistent and appropriate sentences for offenders because Thornburg will have more insight on the cases, he said.
By the time a case file lands on Thornburg’s desk, he’ll know the names and stories of the accused; he’ll know their criminal histories and the new set of allegations they face; and, most importantly, he’ll know which suspects police believe are addicts who need treatment and which are truly criminals who need stern punishments, Ratliff said.
Substance abuse offenses that land people in jail aren’t victim-less crimes, as some would believe, Thornburg said. The pain and suffering drug-users cause themselves stretches into the rest of the community, he said. Behind every one of them, there is a family being ripped apart, he said.
Below is a breakdown of the total number of drug-dealing charges brought against Hancock County offenders in the past five years:
2016 — 76
2015 — 60
2015 — 42
2013 — 36
2012 — 22
2011 — 38
Below is a breakdown of the total number of drug possession charges brought against Hancock County offenders in the last five years:
2016 — 612
2015 — 380
2014 — 140
2013 — 68
2012 — 52
2011 — 2
Provided by the Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office