Addiction and Sentencing: Jennene Guffey

Mar 14, 2017

Methamphetamine hit North Dakota hard
Credit Johnny Grim https://www.flickr.com/photos/grimages

No one starts using drugs with the goal of becoming hopelessly addicted. But that is what often happens. In this Journeys Through Justice story, Meg Luther Lindholm speaks with one woman about her journey through addiction.

Meg: Jenenne Guffey is a woman with a mission. She works at Prairie St. John’s Hospital in Fargo helping substance abusers recover and get their lives back. She struggled for years with her own drug addiction before she got her life back.  Although when she started using drugs she had no idea how long it would take to stop.

JG: I guess my path with getting involved with drugs and and using alcohol. Started out that as an experiment just fun people in high school partying. And eventually it just turned into something else.

Meg: That something else was an addiction to meth which back in the 1990s was often the drug of choice. Meth eased the pain caused by Jennene’s family problems. And as often happens, she got involved with people who encouraged her habit.

JG: and I got involved for a couple of different people romantically that were heavily invested into the drug world and. And I just kind of went down that rabbit hole with them.

Meg: Jenenne went from using meth to manufacturing it with a group of other users. Their goal wasn’t to become big time dealers.

JG: I was with a unch of people that were just trying to feed their habit and doing a really bad job of it. Too addicted to be the kingpins of anything because it was just the means of getting and using and getting and using more. But we were really bad at it anyway and we were all very sick.

Meg: Jenenne was trapped in her addiction without even really knowing it.  

JG: and it wasn't because anybody was threatening me or making me do anything. I just had nowhere else to go and no real skills

Meg: and then there was the feeling of shame that prevents many addicts from seeking help. 

JG: You feel so worthless almost like you don't deserve help anyway. And so you don't want to disclose. You want to try to desperately and for as long as you can to present a different story than what's really going on. I mean people don't aren't proud of being drug addicts.

Meg: and then as so often happens, Jenenne and some of the others in her group got caught. It was Halloween, 1999. A member of Jenenne’s drug using group called the police in an act of vindictive anger. He accused Jenenne and the others of stealing coins from a change machine at a local laundromat. When the police arrived they found incriminating evidence in their car. For Jenenne the arrest actually offered a way out.

JG:  I mean I was scared at first of course not knowing what was going to happen and they give you the worst case scenarios and they're all up to 20 years. But to get to the real point of this is it was I was relieved.

Meg: Back in the 1990’s laws in many states mandated long sentences for drug crimes especially if there were any prior convictions.

GE: the idea when these were all put I is we got a problem and we gotta problem with drugs and we gotta do something and what’s the best way to do something – put people in prison.

Meg: Gary Euren is a former prosecutor who worked on many drug cases in his 11 years on the job. He says times have changed and so has his thinking – especially about the importance of drug treatment.

GE: Whether they’re spending any time in jail or 10 years in jail they should be getting treatment. Treatment should always be a component of a sentence they’ve got.

Meg: But treatment programs – especially ones that low income offenders can afford are in very short supply. Which is why incarceration rates have remained stubbornly high.

GE: Because right now the best place for people to get treatment is in the pen.

Meg: In fact, prison is the place where Jenenne finally got the drug treatment she needed to kick her habit once and for all. You’ll hear more about that in the next Journeys Through Justice.

Journeys Through Justice is funded in part by a grant from the North Dakota humanities council. For Prairie Public, I’m Meg Luther Lindholm.