Assistant DA assigned to drug prosecutions following staff addition
In its first meeting since an election that resulted in a major turnover on the St. Croix County Board, the Administration Committee authorized funding to step up prosecution of heroin-related crimes.
On a vote of 5-0 April 21 the reorganized committee approved transferring roughly $31,000 from the county’s contingency fund to support an entry-level assistant district attorney position from June 1 through the end of the year. District Attorney Eric Johnson said he will assign that new employee to more routine cases and appoint veteran ADA Amber Hahn “special drug prosecutor.”
Johnson said Hahn will focus on prosecuting felony-level cases and will also do community outreach and provide law enforcement officers with training on drug laws and issues.
“(The new position) is not just for prosecution,” said Johnson. “It will also help in treatment.” He said prosecutors can use drug investigations as a negotiating tool to get users into treatment.
“We’re not trying to fill the jail, to send lots of felons to prison,” said Johnson. “We’re trying to use this as another tool to solve the problem.”
Johnson said St. Croix County is facing a heroin epidemic: Eight people have died of drug-related overdoses in the county in the past 20 months, and his office has seen a 33 percent increase in drug cases since 2011.
“The numbers we are seeing rival the number of meth cases we saw 10-15 years ago,” said Johnson. “There are a variety of ways to combat this problem. Strategies that are successful include education, treatment and community support.
“As we learned during the meth crisis, a strong law enforcement role is also crucial.”
Back then, Johnson’s office had a specialized drug prosecutor, but funding for that position expired at the end of 2011.
Johnson said he intends to include the new county-funded ADA in his 2015 budget. After two years, the position and its status will be reviewed.
During 2014 budget work last fall, Johnson asked for money for a new position to specialize in drug cases, but the County Board denied that request on an 8-10 vote.
The state pays for the other five ADAs in his office but is not likely to give him another, although it’s needed, Johnson said then.
The DA made a strong case last fall for the need for the new position, said new Supervisor Roy Sjoberg, a leader of the St. Croix County Progressives Coalition. That association of local union workers and Democrats claimed to have enlisted hundreds of volunteers to garner support for new board candidates.
“Much like the effect that additional manpower had on the meth crisis a couple years ago, the DA convinced many of us that having this additional person to combat the current drug and heroin abuse problem in our county would be a big step forward in preventing some of these horrible events that have been occurring,” said Sjoberg last week. “I know it is not the only thing that needs to be done, but it sure is an important move ahead.
“When an abuser is failing to seek treatment on his or her own, law enforcement may be the intervening factor that saves that person's life.”
Sjoberg added, “During my campaign and as part of the campaign of several of the other victorious candidates, this issue was hot and on everyone's mind -- at least in the Hudson area.”
He said of the 10 supervisors who voted against the ADA position last fall, six (Tim Hood, Daryl Standafer, Fred Yoerg, Buck Malick, Richard Ottino and Duane Russett) lost. Two others (Chris Kilber and David Peterson) won, and Joe Hurtgen and Tom Hawksford did not run.
“So of the 10 supervisors who voted no, only two retained their seats,” summarized Sjoberg.
Last fall, Hood, who represented a Hudson-area district, argued that another prosecutor may not be the solution. He said he’d rather put money into prevention and diversion.
Also, said Hood, the county shouldn’t pay for what should be a state-funded position.
Yoerg, who also represented a Hudson district, was also skeptical about solving the problem by adding a prosecutor.
“By the time (Johnson) sees these people, the house had burned down, the damage has been done,” he said.