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County sees increase in drug cases
Most case filings hold steady
Levi Morris

The number of drug charges filed by the Barton County Attorney’s Office has ticked upwards recently, but other than that, things have remained pretty constant, said County Attorney Levi Morris, giving his departmental report on 2021 to the County Commission Wednesday morning.

“By and large, numbers are the same as they’ve been the last two years,” said Morris, who has served in the post for three years.

The department filed 69 drug distribution charges last year, 68 and 2019, with a three-year average of 66.

Going back to before Morris took the job, the numbers were in the 30-40 range in 2015 2016 and 2017. “So we’ve basically doubled the amount of drug distribution charges that we file in Barton County,” he said. “I don’t think that’s all on me. I think that’s telling me how much how much methamphetamine there is out there.”

“I guess I’m disappointed that the drug cases are up,” District 2 Commissioner Barb Esfeld said. “I was hoping that maybe with the help of Oxford House and other things that are going on, that might be down.”

“The Oxford House is wonderful, don’t get me wrong,” Morris said of the facilities that are halfway houses for recovering addicts. “Those numbers should not be taken as a reflection on whether or not an Oxford House works or doesn’t work.”

He said the reason is likely the increased willingness to file charges, even in cases where information was gathered by a confidential informant. In the past, prosecutors have hesitated due to the credibility and legal background of these CIs.

“I have almost no qualms about filing those,” he said. In years past, the preference was not to.

Repeat offenders

Plea deals are reached in most cases before going to trial, but District 4 Commissioner Jim Daily wondered how may of those re-offend and wind up back in jail.

“I don’t have numbers on recidivism,” Morris said. “I can tell you that we try to publicize every time somebody on probation gets found to have committed a new crime.”

All of these pled cases are turned over to Community Corrections, Morris said. "That’s the fundamental carrot and stick that gets offered.”

They are given the choice of prison or probations. “That’s how we avoid trials,” he said.

“Have you seen a shift to stiffer sentencing here in the courts?” said commission Chairman Shawn Hutchinson, District 3.

“Not really. The legislature ties a lot of hands,” Morris said. State-set sentencing guidelines are outdated and force local prosecutors to take jail time off the table.

“The question is that in 99% of the cases that we prosecute and get a conviction or an agreed upon result, the majority of all of them  are resolved by agreement,” he said. “That’s usually the bargain. The state will recommend corrections if you just plead this.”

The courts in the majority of cases are open to these joint recommendations from the state and the defense. Problems arise when there is a disagreement or an offender violates the terms of the deal.

“The pathway to prison is paved with probation violations,” he said. “And that’s how it is.”

He cited an instance when an offender was released on probation, committed another crime and was arrested again. His probation was revoked and he was headed to prison before they could set a trial for the new crime.

Going to trial

There was one jury trial started in 2020, “then COVID shut us all down,“ he said.

Last year, his office took eight cases to trial for a total of 21 days in court. There weretwo others set, but they were settled before proceedings started.

“Part of that is COVID,” he said. But, he doesn’t think the office took that many cases to trial for the better part of a decade or two.  

“In past years, we have heard the county attorney talk about a backlog of cases,” District 5 Commissioner Jennifer Schartz said. “Where are you in that?”

“I was caught up, but now I’m behind again,” Morris said. This started last year when trials were allowed to resume and they were getting double booked.

“We need to focus on getting them done,” he said. For multiple reasons, he’s been down one out of four prosecutors for the past six months so he’s  behind.

But now, the office is fully staffed and he is ready to go.

Other statistics

• The Barton County Attorney’s office handles somewhere between 2-3,000 cases every year. “And oddly enough, that number keeps dropping,” he said.

Last year, they only handled 1,090 traffic cases, down from 1,500 in 2020, down from 1,800 in 2019 and down from 1,968 in 2018. Most of these are speeding tickets or driving without a license.

“I don’t have a lot of control over that. I don’t know what it is,” he said. I don’t think it’s COVID. I don’t think it’s manpower. I think it’s more of a coincidence.”

• They filed 93 child-in-need-of-care cases last year “which is about our average over the last couple of year,” he said.

• They filed 50 juvenile offender cases, which is the average for the last two or three years. This has been since Legislature changed how juveniles are prosecuted.

“That number used to be closer to 100,” he said. But, the changes took some things out of our hands. We can’t control it.”

• They filed 43 care-and-treatment cases last year, which is close to average, with 52 filed in 2020.

• They filed 473 adult criminal cases. “And again, that’s pretty consistent since I’ve been here,” he said. They filed 476 in 2019, 492 in 2020.

The 2021 number  was “a little light,” Morris said. But, he fired county prosecutor Doug Matthews in July of last year.

“We didn’t file as many cases the last five months as we probably should up because we were short handed,” he said. “So that number probably should be closer to 500 or 525 in terms of the adult criminal offenders that we handle.”