The Great Debate

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a

four-part series highlighting a debate held at The Post-Journal between

Chautauqua County executive candidates Vince Horrigan and Ron Johnson.

Vince Horrigan and Ron Johnson are on the same page when it comes to putting an end to drug-related crimes in Chautauqua County. Their plan of attack, however, varies.

Horrigan, the Republican candidate for county executive, would like to expand education, treatment and wraparound programs for drug users, making it a community-wide effort. On the other hand, Johnson, the Democratic candidate for the position, believes current abusers hold the key to the solution.

“There are two of us that are pretty much on the same page as far as going after this and stopping (the drug problem),” Johnson said. “I think we’re both going to do that. I think I would want a little more outreach to the people who are actually affected by this to help with the solution.”

According to Johnson, when the jail was built and added onto in Mayville, it was figured the county would be able to market some beds for federal prisoners in order to balance the budget. However, he said after the jail was built, it was filled. And, Johnson said he believes Sheriff Joe Gerace has a problem with engaging the rest of county government to help with the situation.

“(Gerace) finds himself in a strange position.,” Johnson said. “He’s in a position where he has no authority whatsoever to put someone in the jail, and he has no authority whatsoever to get them out. So, the judges and the county judges do have the authority to put them in, and they have to be part of the solution. The county executive has to be part of the solution, because the county executive has say over the probation department, mental health and a lot of the other services.”

Johnson said the mental health sufferers need to get out of the jail, as he believes there are more effective ways to deal with those people rather than incarcerating them.

“The jail, to me – and that’s with being a police officer for 20 years, a judge for 16 – the place for a jail is for violent offenders,” he said. “If you’re going to hurt someone, hurt me, hurt your neighbor, I don’t care why you did it. I don’t care if you’re on drugs, you want to get drugs, it doesn’t matter. If you’re going to be violent, you need to be put someplace where society is protected from you. Everything else, we can work with.”

The solution to the problem, Johnson said, is recruiting drug abusers to help find answers. Johnson said the people who are abusers want out of the situation, and can become engaged in finding a solution. Additionally, Johnson pointed to drug stores as part of the problem, as prescription pill abuse can lead to more serious drug abuse.

“We’re schizophrenic when it comes to dealing with drugs,” Johnson said. “I think that we have to have a more realistic look at that, we have to get people at the table who understand the problem, and then we have to find that solution. We have to have a secure area for these people to be able to go through what they’re going to go through, and we don’t have that. We don’t have any plan for that.”

As a Chautauqua Opportunities board member, Horrigan said the drug situation is one that is frequently discussed already in the county.

“This is a big problem,” Horrigan said. “First of all, if you come to Chautauqua County and you prey on our kids, we’re going to lock you up and throw you in jail. Of course, you’ll go through the justice system first. We’re not going to tolerate people bringing drugs into our community, because it’s ripping us apart.”

As a solution, Horrigan said the county is in need of effective drug treatment programs for those offenders who are sentenced through drug courts, as well as for first-time offenders. Additionally, Horrigan said he believes the county needs more effective probationary programs, as well as wrap around services for drug users.

“What we do not want to do is get them in the system, where they are repeat, hardcore drug addicts,” he said. “We’ve got to get effective treatment. It’s not effective now, in my judgment. That’s an area we’ve got to work on.”

Already, an Alternatives to Incarceration panel is being developed to look for alternatives to the jail overcrowding issue, Horrigan said. Included in the panel are judges as well as faith-based and nonprofit organizations. Horrigan promised that, as county executive, he would be tough on drug enforcement, and pointed out burglaries, assaults, serious crimes and felonies are often related to drug use.

“We can’t keep adding floors to the jail. We can’t afford that,” Horrigan said. “It’s $84 a day to put someone in the jail. It’s $3 a day for probationary. But we’ve got to have those treatment programs to cut the demand. If we cut the demand, that’s on the way to killing the supply.”

Additionally, Horrigan said drug education for young people in the county is important, as is more closely screening public assistance clients for drug abuse.

“We do now. I’m in favor of tightening that down, because the culture of drugs is such that it requires money to buy more,” he said. “When you need more drugs, you need more money. You use whatever means you can get it, and then you commit crime. That’s the spiral.”

Horrigan emphasized the drug issue in Chautauqua County is not only a problem to be addressed by government, but it is one that requires multiple levels to engage and turn it around.

“I’m very, very familiar with some of the challenges we have in this county. We have to take another look at how we’re dealing with our drug treatment and rehabilitation programs. It’s not effective. We have to revamp that,” Horrigan said. “They’ve got to be more robust, they’ve got to be more effective. We need the outcome. The outcome of moving people from a culture of drugs … or through the drug courts or whatever we have, to get them employed. This is an employability issue. The coalition we’re on, one of the areas is substance abuse. That’s one area that we’re looking at. We as a community have to come together. Everyone has to enter into this to find a more effective outcome. It is a significant challenge. It’s one that we have to continue, update, and work through, but it’s one that involves our schools and our whole community. We’ve got to ensure we do not enable this kind of behavior.”

Both candidates agree there has been an increase in drug crimes over recent years, and both agree a solution is needed.

“I think what we can all feel good about is, it doesn’t matter who is going to win (the county executive race), somebody’s going after (the drug issue),” Johnson said.