Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard from former addicts that are now in recovery. We also heard from a brother who lost his little sister to a heroin overdose. We heard from the counselors at the Human Resource Center, and last week, from our local police about the law enforcement effort.
This week, I talked with the person responsible for prosecuting local drug crimes, our State’s Attorney, Mark Isaf.
Mark has been a member of the Illinois Bar since 1991 when he joined Asher & Smith, later becoming a law partner in Asher, Smith and Isaf.
In July 2010, Isaf was appointed as Interim State’s Attorney when former prosecutor Matt Sullivan was appointed to fill the circuit judge vacancy. Isaf then ran unopposed in the special election held in the fall of 2010, and was unopposed in 2012.
He’s responsible for prosecuting all violations against Illinois law here in Edgar County, including drug crimes. With a background in family law, business law, and several other specialities, I was curious why he jumped into the maelstrom of criminal law.
TD: That seemed like quite a shift. Why the change?
Isaf: The meth problem hit in the mid 2000’s and criminally, that was the challenge I was looking for.
TD: What has surprised you about the job?
Isaf: I thought criminal law would be a little more black and white; the good guys enforcing the rules. One of the consequences of this job is you see the pull of the drugs. But my job isn’t just to win. It’s to try and do justice, and justice is different to different people.
TD: What do you mean?
Isaf: One may be a first time offender; one may be a 3-time felon.
TD: What are some other considerations?
Isaf: What makes them not come back here? I ask myself when I sum up, “What should be the consequences?” I look at three things: Special deterrents, general deterrents, and incapacitation.
TD: Can you explain those?
Isaf: Special deterrents are: Will it deter the individual? General deterrents are: Is the community aware of what happened, and will it deter his running buddies from doing the same thing? And finally, incapacitation is: We have to put you on ice for awhile.
TD: So the same offense can have different penalties.
Isaf: Everyone brings a different family history, personal history, criminal history, education or employment history, which impacts their ability to be rehabilitated from a taker to a giver. If there’s no chance you’re ever going to be a giver, then it’s incapacitation. I need to remove you from the community, so it’s now a matter of what the legal remedies are on how long you’ll be incarcerated.
TD: What else have you learned?
Isaf: Dispensing the justice comes with a cost. It’s probably not justice to go ahead and incarcerate some people if they can be rehabilitated. And then you have plea bargains. You have to determine in your mind, “What is the appropriate response to that particular crime.”
TD: Any other considerations?
Isaf: We’re on a limited budget. We can afford to have one trial a month. That’s 12 trials a year. We have between 200-250 felonies a year filed. 400 plus misdemeanors filed every year. Double that for traffic cases; conservation offenses. When you look at 1,000 cases every year… it wouldn’t be economically prudent to try every case.
TD: Economics matters.
Isaf: It’s mandated by law. Judges have to sign off that they’ve considered the cost of incarceration when making their sentence.
TD: What does your office do to help rehabilitate drug offenders?
Isaf: We have a program that’s one of the potential remedies under the law for first offenders with cannibis, meth, controlled substances like OxyContin, and other prescription drugs and heroin. There is the opportunity to give that person a chance to rehabilitate if they serve the two years and follow all the terms of their probation, i.e. counseling, meeting with probation, drug testing, etc.
TD: What are the guidelines?
Isaf: They have to be small possessions; users only. First offenders. They can’t have any other felony problems.
TD: How has that been working?
Isaf: I’m aware of some of the successes and so I continue to implement this in the enforcement of drug crime. In the five year window I’ve been here, some haven’t come back.
TD: But not all of them.
Isaf: If they were addicts, it’s probably not going to work. If they were using the drug socially, it can.
TD; I’ve heard people say that these people keep getting arrested, but nothing ever seems to happen.
Isaf: Well, when I hear that, I usually ask them what they mean? When you press for details, the arguments usually dry up. We can’t go on gut instinct. I need probable cause to make an arrest. People don’t really understand that often, we need more information. We need facts. There are protections and limits to what we can do. This was originally designed in our Constitution to protect individual liberty.
TD: So people need to realize that things aren’t always they way they appear.
Isaf: Most people just judge things emotionally; they’ll interpret things that way, and I understand that. But I can’t look at it and react emotionally. I’m more likely to make mistakes when I hurry than if I take my time and do it right.
TD: It takes time.
Isaf: Sometimes it takes awhile. We can’t get a search warrant unless someone is willing to stand up and be named. We need reliable and credible witnesses if it goes to trial, because the defense is going to attack those witnesses as not credible.
TD: So sometimes it looks like they’re getting off…
Isaf: Sometimes we have to allow them enough rope to hang themselves. They may have their liberty now, but it’s just a matter of time and the process. I play a long game. I’ll get em sooner or later.
TD: Let’s talk about meth and heroin. What are you seeing right now?
Isaf: The bulk is still meth. The higher profile of what happens with heroin use is bringing it more attention, though. I can’t think of a single case where a coroner’s report has shown meth to be the cause of death, but we’re getting those with heroin. Meth takes awhile to ruin you, but heroin can be one time…
TD: What else?
Isaf: Have you ever heard of pill parties?
TD: No. What are they?
Isaf: This is where high school kids just grab whatever pills they can find from left over prescriptions, throw them into a bowl, and take whatever comes out. They have no idea what the effects will be.
TD: Here in this community?
Isaf: Oh yeah. Pills are so prevalent now. If people would just look at their expired medications, their prescriptions running out. This kind of high risk behavior is incredible to me. It’s now a social behavior.
TD: When I talked with the police, they said there was a lot of other crime that goes along with drugs.
Isaf: Most of the people that will use mind altering substances aren’t working, at least after awhile. Where will they get the money for these substances? They’ll begin stealing. Now we’ve gone from personal destruction to one that impacts the community. You might find them breaking into your house at night to steal your things, to pay for their addiction. Now they’re putting you and themselves at risk. The level of resources it sucks out of the community is staggering.
TD: What role does underage drinking play in this whole thing?
Isaf: My observation and experience is that alcohol is the first mood altering substance that kids have abundant access to. We’re also modeling it for them. We (adults) can’t give it up ourselves. We have beers at every major sporting event. We have beers and cocktails at our parties, and kids see that. Why is it a shock to us that a thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen year old will want to “be an adult” and drink?
TD: So if we’re wanting to really model good behaviors…
Isaf: A few years ago, I attended a local conference about underage drinking. I asked the group, “As parents, what would we be willing to give up for our kids?” There was just silence. But think about it. Give up that cocktail at the end of the week. Don’t have that beer with your meal. But when we tell them that they can’t drink because it’s illegal, but it’s ok for us because we’re of legal age and drink responsibly…
TD: Then the kids will know we’re really serious about it.
Isaf: And don’t forget, sexual assaults go right along with it (underage drinking). Inhibitions are different. In most cases where teens are involved in sexual assaults in a party environment, alcohol is involved.
TD: What do you think we need to know as a community, about the drug problem here in Edgar County? What’s our takeaway?
Isaf: Ultimately, it’s educational, and it’s conduct too. Is your buddy going to tell you to do it, or not do it? And on a micro-level, it’s a family problem. That’s where it first shows up, and it’s where it does the most damage.