Criminal activity due to the abuse of illegal drugs is the No. 1 issue facing the Cole County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, according to both Republican candidates in the Aug. 7 primary.
They differ on how to address it.
Incumbent Mark Richardson has been prosecutor for 12 years. If re-elected, he said, he would continue to hold people accountable for their actions to ensure the safety of law-abiding residents.
"The addicted person became addicted through their own fault," Richardson said. "When their addiction leads them to commit multiple crimes against law-abiding citizens, they have to be held accountable. But another element has to be held accountable, and that's those who bring these drugs into our county. We cannot excuse the commission of crime because the person was trying to obtain property to feed their addiction."
Locke Thompson, the challenger in the Republican primary, said the prosecutor's office must do more to address the individuals caught in the cycle of addiction.
"The statistics I've been shown indicate that 80 percent of people incarcerated in the Missouri Department of Corrections suffer from sort of addiction, and 80 percent of those people also suffer from sort or mental health issue," said Thompson, who worked as an assistant prosecutor in Jasper County before returning to Jefferson City to work in the special prosecutions unit of the Missouri Attorney General's Office. While in that role, Thompson specialized in criminal prosecutions, crimes of public corruption and violent sexual predator cases.
"I agree that the prison population has become a huge problem, both at the state and local levels," Thompson said. "Again, with the individuals suffering from drug issues and mental health problems, I think there is the opportunity to relieve the burden on the jails and Department of Corrections. I think successfully utilizing treatment court programs can turn people into productive citizens. The statistics I've been shown indicate that those who go into prison with an addiction issue, when they come out, if not treated, are three times more likely to re-offend."
Richardson suggested the solution might lie outside the criminal justice system.
"Back in 1985, when I was an assistant prosecutor, I saw where the state cut back on mental health treatment," Richardson said. "Before that happened, they had the money to help run group homes and identify people who got into the criminal system because of their natural mental status, which they couldn't help.
"Now over the years, you see our criminal system having to deal more with a person who could be dangerous to society, but doesn't need to be locked up in a jail," he said. "They need a supervised facility, group home, to live in, but those can be very expensive. We would like to have a way to have those people, early on, get over to the mental health treatment side in a way that protects society. If that's not there and they have committed crimes that hurt people, then we have to handle them in the criminal system because they can't be left out, unsupervised, to commit crimes against law-abiding citizens."
Thompson said he would be open to alternative justice programs.
"I'm vastly different to my opponent in this race because he does not believe in treatment courts or he's very skeptical of their effectiveness," Thompson said. "He (Richardson) believes that they allow career criminals to continue to get away with crimes.
"I can tell you in working with the mental health court, that is simply not the case. When you have a prosecutor's office that is 100 percent on board with this type of program, then it becomes beneficial for the offender and the public," Thompson said.
Richardson disagreed, saying he has supported treatment courts and most of them in Cole County have been put into place under his watch.
"The Drug Court was here when I came into office 12 years ago, but we've added a Veterans Court since that time and DWI Court," Richardson said. "I support these, but I also say the right people have to get admitted into those courts, not the career criminals who represent a threat to the public.
"Under my leadership, there have been many times where we've said we cannot have those who sell heroin or methamphetamine get into drug court when they were never addicted in the first place," he said. "We get information from law enforcement, undercover narcotic officers, who tell us of people involved in sales who are not addicts. The first thing many of them say when they get caught is, 'Judge, I was addicted and I need treatment.'
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"The prosecutor must sit on guard to ensure that those getting into treatment courts are the ones where society's resources can be wisely spent on treatment."
Thompson agreed cracking down on distribution of illegal drugs and addressing addiction issues must be tackled together.
"Simply throwing an addict in jail without addressing any underlying addiction or mental health issues is nothing but a waste of taxpayer dollars and makes the individual more likely to abuse drugs again upon release," Thompson said. "At the same time, we must crack down on the individuals who deal and distribute these drugs within our community. It's only by taking these steps together that we can adequately address the issue of drug addiction and overdose in our community."
The winner of the Aug. 7 Republican primary will face presumed Democratic nominee Deirdre "DK" Hirner in the November general election.