Judges: Heroin Is Communities' Number One Problem
District Judges Robert Wyda and Blaise Larotonda addressed the needs and problems they see in Upper St. Clair, Bethel Park and Mt. Lebanon during an Upper St. Clair Youth Steering Committee event Wednesday night.
Drugs and alcohol are public enemies numbers one and two in the Upper St. Clair, Bethel Park and Mt. Lebanon communities, according to district Judges Robert Wyda and Blaise Larotonda.
The judges spoke to community members during an event Wednesday night called "Straight Talk: A Discussion With Our Local Magistrates," sponsored by the Upper St. Clair Youth Steering Committee. Deputy Chief of Police Douglas Burkholder came to the meeting to represent the Upper St. Clair Police Department.
District Judge Wyda said when he first became judge 12 years ago, the big issue he dealt with was truancy.
"Since that time, without a doubt, the number one issue now is heroin," he said.
"If you don't think it's going to hit your community, you're wrong," district Judge Larotonda said. He told the story of a 25-year-old Mt. Lebanon woman who recently died from an overdose.
Heroin is a wildly addictive drug that has an 80-90 percent relapse rate. The drug is cheap and easy for people to get.
"Once you stick a needle in your arm, it's a long nightmare to come," district Judge Wyda said.
He said many kids start by using alcohol and marijuana, and then they try snorting heroin. They then will try sticking a needle in themselves to get a better high.
The heroin problem in the South Hills has caused the district judges' job to change over the years.
"We have been forced to change from criminal courts to more of a social welfare court, and that came from necessity," district Judge Wyda said.
"You just can't be a judge these days. We're social workers. Our goal is that these people don't come in front of us again," district Judge Larotonda said.
Instead of sending people with minor drug cases to the Allegheny County Courthouse, district Judges Wyda and Larotonda work with the defendants, their families, the police and the local school officials to get to the root of the drug problems—which are usually addiction or mental health issues.
The judges often keep the cases open for 6-12 months and give the defendants a chance to go to rehabilitation facilities and get sober. If the defendants can prove they have stayed clean, the charges can be greatly reduced.
"I think it's the best and only way to go. We're the only ones that can put someone in jail and that gives us leverage," district Judge Wyda said.
For Parents: What To Do
If parents find a needle or stamp bag, district Judge Wyda said they should turn their kids into police.
"The short-term pain will be met with long-term gain," he said. "We have to fight this battle differently. Don't fear the police or local magistrate."
Once the drug problem is over, the drug charges can be dropped to summary offenses. District Judge Larotonda added that there are ways to expunge records.
District Judge Larotonda also emphasized the importance of getting addicts to professional drug counselors. He told the story of a Mt. Lebanon 17-year-old who came to court and said he didn't go to drug treatment as he was ordered. The juvenile's father told the judge it was his fault; he said the facility wanted his son to enter into inpatient rehab for drugs and alcohol and the father thought they "were just trying to get his money." District Judge Larotonda said it's a huge problem if inpatient treatment for drugs and alcohol is recommended for a 17-year-old and that parents must trust the professionals.
"Check jewelry boxes, that's where a lot of kids are getting the money (to buy drugs)," Deputy Chief of Police Burkholder also advised parents. He said the Upper St. Clair Police Department has many cases of kids selling stolen jewelry to one of the many gold exchange stores in the area.
For Students: Dangers of Social Media, Public Records
Teenagers and young adults should think twice before tweeting or posting status updates or pictures on Facebook. More people than just followers or friends may be able to see the risqué behavior.
District Judge Wyda said Facebook pages are checked when people come to court for a hearing. Many college application offices and job employers do the same.
Something else that is important to know: Criminal records are public records. With a name and a birthdate, anyone can look up a criminal record using a website.
Deputy Chief of Police Burkholder said people wouldn't believe how many requests the Upper St. Clair Police Department receives for background checks. He said a young woman who just graduated college didn't get a job because of an underage drinking charge she received in Upper St. Clair.
Underage Drinking Parties
District Judge Wyda said almost every rape case he has experienced since becoming a judge 12 years ago has involved young adults or teenagers and alcohol.
"Teenagers, alcohol, no adults: It's a formula for disaster," he said. Unsupervised teenager parties are his pet peeve.
"They're dangerous," he said.
People who give or buy alcohol to those less than 21 years of age can be charged with providing alcohol to minors.
"It's a misdemeanor, it's not a good charge to have," district Judge Larotonda said. "And if something does happen (at the party), other criminal and civil charges could be coming."
It's possible for people less than 21 years of age who are at a party with alcohol to also be charged, even if they aren't drinking.
"It's a $300 fine and a summary offense, but it's still on your record. You can't get a teaching job or a job with the government," district Judge Wyda said.
Do you think drugs and alcohol are problems in Upper St. Clair? Why or why not? Tell us in the comments.