End of the rope
Baraga County prosecutor trying something new in war against meth
L’ANSE — Effective Tuesday, Baraga County Prosecutor Joseph O’Leary is not offering plea bargains for people charged with making or distributing methamphetamine.
While plea bargains are an important part of the justice system, the “insidious scourge” of methamphetamine requires new tactics to combat it, he said in a Monday release announcing the decision.
“The last two, three years, meth has become such a huge problem,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s starting to get overwhelming. I’m just seeing more and more meth cases.”
O’Leary did not have immediate figures on how many methamphetamine cases had come through the court system in recent years. However, he said he sees new meth-related cases several times a week.
Some of those cases are connected to methamphetamine users, rather than delivery or manufacture. For those cases, O’Leary says he remains open to plea bargains or alternatives such as treatment.
“I still have sympathy for those addicted to the substance … if you want to sell it, or make it, I have no sympathy,” he said. “I just decided we’ve got to do something different. After today, if you are engaging in those crimes, you are on notice that this is how I’m going to react.”
O’Leary said the ban on plea bargains would not apply to people who had been charged with meth offenses prior to Tuesday.
Messages were left seeking comment from the Tri-County Public Defenders’ office, which represents many of the cases in the local court system.
So far, feedback has been uniformly positive, O’Leary said.
“Actually, defense lawyers are calling me and telling me their wives love it,” he said. “I’m not sure they’re as happy about it.”
The number of methamphetamine cases has been on the rise in the county over the past few years, said Baraga County Sheriff Joe Brogan. He backed O’Leary’s decision.
“I think it’s appropriate given the amount of drugs that we have in our county, specifically methamphetamine,” he said.
O’Leary said it remains to be seen whether stopping plea bargains would result in more cases going to trial, or whether defendants would plead to the original charges.
“A lot of these cases are pretty good cases from the prosecution standpoint, so they’re not looking to go to a trial,” he said.
The drug is a synthetic stimulant whose long-term effects can include psychosis, dental problems and heart and brain damage, according to the CDC.
Drug overdose deaths were higher on a population-adjusted basis in Michigan’s urban counties than rural counties in 2020, according to CDC data. But the type of drug being used varied by area. While fentanyl was bigger in urban areas, the rate of deaths involving psychostimulants with abuse potential — a category dominated by methamphetamines — was 31% higher in rural counties.
Even for meth users who live, O’Leary said it surpassed any drug he’d seen in its physical and mental damage. When he formerly represented a drug rehabilitation center in Oklahoma, he often dealt with the person who ran it, a former 20-year heroin user. While that person still had physical difficulties, he had largely overcome other problems. Those recoveries are rarer among meth users, O’Leary said.
“I see somebody on meth for a couple years, and it’s almost like they’re gone, there’s no going back,” he said. “It’s the worst drug I’ve seen. Fentanyl is scary, but I just don’t see much compared to meth.”
O’Leary acknowledged the risks of removing plea bargains from the equation. Although unpopular or misunderstood, plea bargains are essential to keeping the justice system functioning and achieving justice and accountability in a “cost-effective, timely manner,” O’Leary said in his statement.
If every case went to trial, he said Tuesday, “it’d probably break Baraga County in a year.”
Between 90% to 95% of cases in federal and state court systems are resolved through plea bargains, according to a Federal Bureau of Justice estimate.
“It really is critical,” O’Leary said. “Without them, this system of criminal justice wouldn’t work. But the meth, I’m just at the end of my rope with it. I just see decent people that wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing if they weren’t so whacked out on this stuff.”