7 Dec 2011

Wood County Felony Rate Highest in Eight Years

Author: Rachael Murphy | Filed under: Enterprise Story, Local stories

Data from Cindy Hofner, graph made by Rachael Murphy.

by Rachael Murphy

Wood County has seen a 13.6 percent rise in the number of felony cases this year, and the year isn’t over yet.

Wood County Clerk of Courts Cindy Hofner keeps track of the yearly numbers. She said that the types of crimes that are included in the felony case count are theft, embezzlement and drug charges, but not murder. Hofner says that a case is an incident that can involve multiple charges against the defendant. The number of felony cases in Wood County is 670 so far this year, compared to 590 last year.

Wood County officials say the rise is the result of the recent bust of a big-box store theft ring. According to a WTOL article, the theft ring has been under investigation for two years by Perrysburg Township. A total of 68 people have been charged with felonies. The suspects were stealing items from different stores and returning the stolen items for store gift cards.

Wood County Public Defender Kathleen Hamm said that all 68 arrests were originally charged as felonies because the theft ring was an organized crime effort by a coordinated group of people, which resulted in all 68 suspects being charged with “engaging in corrupt activity,” which is a felony in Ohio.

Chief Deputy Eric Reynolds of the Wood County Sheriff’s Office said that the big-box store theft ring was connected to illegal drug use.

“These aren’t cases of fathers stealing money to be able to put food on the table, these are cases of people stealing to buy drugs,” Reynolds said.

Theft and drug convictions are on the rise in Wood County for a variety of reasons, one of which could be the relatively new drug task force of the Wood County Sheriff’s Office. The drug task force was created two years ago in response to Ohio’s rising prescription drug abuse, Reynolds said.

Violent crime (such as rape and homicide) is not on the rise, Reynolds said. But people are committing other felonies, like theft and breaking and entering, as a means to obtain drugs.

Wood County Prosecutor Paul Dobson was able to provide some “rough numbers” of how many of the total Wood County felony cases are theft and drug related. Of the 513 cases he has stored in his database, 295, or about 58 percent, were theft and drug related felony cases.

However, the crime rate and number of drug convictions have decreased nationally, said retired Judge of Bowling Green Municipal Court, James Bachman, who now teaches criminal justice courses at Bowling Green State University.

The Drug Enforcement Adminsitration has seen a decrease in the number of arrests made over the last decade. Data from DEA Stats & Facts, graph made by Rachael Murphy.

Bachman said that the varying felony rate in Wood County over the years is contingent upon several factors.

“Over my 48 year career in Ohio’s criminal justice system, the police have gotten much more sophisticated. Cops themselves are better educated, better trained and given better equipment,” Bachman said. “If the police are doing their job better, then the number of crimes they report will go up.”

Bachman also said that the economy could be a factor, as theft could be a way for a family to obtain money and resources in hard economic times. With increased felony rates, there are more people to put in prisons, but prisons are full and the state doesn’t have the money to build more prisons. This means that some criminals will be given parole and be able to continue illegal activities on the streets, which could also explain the increase in felony rate.

“One major factor is how aggressive the county prosecutor decides to be. For instance, consider a teenager with no prior record who is caught with a small quantity of a drug – the prosecutor can decide to prosecute the case as a felony or as a misdemeanor,” said Hamm.

“It comes down to the fact that the system is run by people who all have their own beliefs and leanings,” Bachman said. “If the prosecutor has strong beliefs about a certain kind of charge, the police will pursue that more.”

The Wood County Public Defender’s Office has only three defense attorneys on staff, and because of the nature of the crime, the Wood County Public Defender’s Office is not able to represent the defendants.

“It’s considered a conflict of interest,” Hamm said. “We cannot defend all 68 people because they all know each other.”

Hamm says that most of the 68 defendants will not be able to afford a lawyer, but since everyone has the right to a defense attorney, the State of Ohio has to provide one for anyone who can’t afford it. This means that Wood County tax payers will be footing the bill for private defense attorneys for most of the suspects.

“Drug use and poverty are intertwined. Sometimes people get out of jail but they don’t have a place to live, which results in them going back to old habits to make money. The criminal justice system in Ohio is lacking in addressing rehabilitation,” Hamm said. “Our case load is large because a lot of our clients can’t afford to hire a lawyer themselves.”

“It won’t be a huge expense to the State, but it will be a significant one.” Hamm said.

“I think it’s going to be a big cost, but people have the right to a defense,” said Wood County resident and Criminal Justice major Mary Zellin.

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One thought on “Wood County Felony Rate Highest in Eight Years

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