The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Reality Check

June 25, 2008

Crime & Drugs Inc. always hiring

Some “unemployed” residents find crime to be their best source of steady income. Judge Richard Stevens of Western County Court says he noticed a 50-percent increase in the number of criminal cases handled by his court between 2005 and last year.

“How much of that is due to the economy, I can’t say,” says Stevens. “When the economy goes bad, a lot of things go bad. Unemployment is a difficult time and can lead people to do things they might not normal do.”

Like shoplifting. Stevens says there’s been a substantial increase in the number of shoplifting cases. “Whether that’s because of an actual increase in shoplifting or stepped up enforcement, I can’t say.”

Ashtabula County Sheriff William Johnson says virtually all shoplifting and other property cases handled by the department have drugs at their core. “Nine-five to 98 percent of all our calls are somehow drug related,” Johnson says.

Lt. Greg Leonhard, a 22-year veteran of the department, is in charge of the uniformed and dispatching division of the Ashtabula County Sheriff’s Department. Leonhard sees two factors driving crime: a weak economy and a lack of moral values.

“Morally, people are changing ... there is moral decay,” he says.

“Even if they do know the rules, they don’t care about them,” Johnson says.

Both Leonhard and Johnson say there is a segment of the county’s population that makes a living dealing drugs. Johnson can’t put a number on the size of this segment, but he knows they do very well financially, and it’s tax-free money that won’t show up in per capita figures.

“They have more money than you and I and 10 people put together,” Johnson says.

Leonhard says crime tends to be cyclical in the county and rises whenever the economy falters. Concurrently, county budget woes, driven by a weak economy, have resulted in severe staffing cuts in Johnson’s department. When he took office in 1993, there were 112 employees in the office; now there are 78. During that same time, the burden of mandated duties has increased without boosts in funding.

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