In the past four years, the number of people on probation in Greenwood has more than doubled, an increase officials say is due to a continued rise in drug use.
Since 2013, the number of offenders that the Greenwood City Court monitors through its probation department went from 375 people to nearly 800, Judge Lewis Gregory said.
Gregory attributes the increase to a combination of increasing drug use — especially heroin — and more arrests on drug-related crimes. Drug addiction is the primary crime generator in America, Gregory said, citing studies that show anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of crimes can be linked directly or indirectly to the use of drugs.
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Two out of every three people placed on probation in 2017 in Greenwood were convicted of substance-abuse related offenses, such as crimes related to alcohol, marijuana, heroin or other substances, according to data from the Greenwood Probation Department.
Drug-related cases long have been the majority of the workload for the probation department, chief probation officer Mindy Ison said.
The opioid epidemic, along with some drug offenses being reclassified from felonies to misdemeanors — meaning offenders are more likely to be sentenced to probation rather than jail time — is largely responsible for the increase in offenders being placed on probation, Ison said. Marijuana has always been one of the more common drug offenses, but others, such as heroin and meth, have become more common as well, she said.
Misdemeanor filings at the city court already are at 1,700 for the year, which is much higher than previous years, Gregory said.
Greenwood also has a specific drug court, a strict program that closely monitors offenders, who have to check in for daily drug testing, Ison said. About 40 offenders are currently enrolled in the program, Ison said.
More cases means more people that could potentially sentenced to probation, Gregory said.
The situation for the probation department is far different than just a few years ago. In 2013, a lack of offenders sentenced to probation required the department — funded by the fees offenders pay to be in the program — to request financial assistance from the city to continue running. At the time, the concern was whether the program could keep going, since the number of cases wasn’t bringing in enough money to pay for staff.
“Because our programs are self-funded, it is necessary that we have a certain volume to break even,” Gregory said.
Now, the department is preparing to hire an additional probation officer, bringing its total staff to six employees, Ison said.
Whether the number of people on probation remains high will depend on what steps are taken to get the drug epidemic under control and changes to the law, regarding felony or misdemeanor charges, Gregory said.
Overcrowding at the Johnson County jail the past several years also has highlighted alternative sentencing options, including community corrections programs and probation, he said.
And local officials also have discussed growing local programs for people addicted to drugs, with the goal of helping them recover from addiction.
The common challenges faced by people on probation for drug offenses include finding housing, jobs and recovery, Ison said. Probation officers can often refer people to services, such as housing agencies or rehabilitation programs, she said.
“We just hope that by the end of probation that they are better off leaving here than when they start,” she said.
The number of new cases being handled each year by the Greenwood Probation Department has risen rapidly in the past five years:
2017 (year-to-date): 762
Source: Greenwood Probation Department