Crime & Courts

What’s fueling Kansas’ growing crime rates? Meth, leaders say

Methamphetamine addiction is plaguing Kansas, driving up the crime rate and filling jails with people who would be better served in treatment centers, local leaders say.

“It’s up to all of us not to turn a blind eye,” Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said. “It affects our employers, it affects our schools, it affects our social fabric. It’s still fueled by meth, it’s just coming from south of the border instead of somebody’s barn on the back 40. Nevertheless, it’s there.”

Schmidt was a panelist at the Wichita Crime Commission’s Sedgwick County Drug Summit on Thursday. A group of local and state leaders met with community members to answer a single question: What should Sedgwick County do, as a community, to solve the growing meth and opioid problem?

“We’ve been fighting the War on Drugs since the 1980s,” Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said. “And we’re losing.”

Easter said the jails are filled with drug addicted people who might be better served with community resources, such as drug treatment or mental health services.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” Easter said.

Seven out of 10 inmates at Sedgwick County jail, which houses inmates from the largest metropolitan area in Kansas, is a person struggling with drug addiction, Easter said. Many have drug addiction and a mental illness.

Many of those inmates are addicted to meth, which drove them to commit the crime they were arrested for in the first place, District Attorney Marc Bennett said.

“People aren’t breaking into businesses, houses and cars for the thrill of it,” Bennett said. “They’re doing it to feed an addiction.”

But property crimes aren’t the only crimes driven by meth. Bennett said many violent crimes, including last month’s killing of Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Kunze, are driven by meth.

Bennett said 11 percent of all charged felony cases his office handles have at least one count of possession of meth.

“That’s just the people who had meth in their pocket when they were arrested,” Bennett said.

We know the problem, Bennett said, and it’s costing the state in ruined lives and money spent. Now we just have to find a solution — and whatever the solution is will cost money, but maybe not as much as fighting problem through the criminal justice system.

Based on a study by the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State, resources like the Comcare Crisis Center geared towards addiction services might offer a solution that makes financial sense, Bennett said.

That study looked at years 2014-2017 and analyzed how much money the center saved taxpayers that would have otherwise been spent at hospitals, police, jail and the court system. Last year, it saved between $9.7 million and $14.5 million, the study found.

“If we could wipe meth off the face of the earth today, the crime rate in Sedgwick County would drop significantly,” Bennett said. “But we can’t do that, so what else can we do?”

Based on Thursday’s discussions, Easter said an oversight board and a strategic plan will help slow the growth of meth addiction. Another drug crisis is on the horizon: the opioid crisis.

“We know that we have a methamphetamine problem, and I don’t know how we would survive dealing with both at the same time,” Easter said.

Schmidt said he worries many Kansans have become distracted by national coverage of the opioid crisis before we’ve solved the meth problem.

“From a Kansas perspective, at least, I worry some that we have paid so much attention to the public discourse to opioids and drug diversion that we’ve lost sight of really what is driving most of our drug problem here in Kansas — which is still methamphetamine,” Schmidt said.

Easter said two new full-time positions to be filled by the start of 2019 will help the county focus on drug treatment and mental health: a drug addition specialist at the sheriff’s office and a mental health coordinator at Comcare.

‘“We are committed to solving this right now so we don’t have to deal with it again in 10 years,” Easter said.

At the state level, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation was awarded a $848,459 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday to help the state fight its growing meth problem, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney in the District of Kansas Stephen McAllister. The money will be used to “locate or investigate illicit activities, including precursor diversion, laboratories or methamphetamine traffickers.”

Chance Swaim: 316-269-6752, @byChanceSwaim
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