PENDLETON- When Karen Ashback found out her granddaughter was addicted to methamphetamine while at the same time trying to be a mother to her 14-month-old child, she knew she had to take custody of her great-grandson.

Ashback said she wasn't about to use her great-grandson as a pawn to get her granddaughter to clean up her act and get her son back.

"The only thing that could get her clean was jail time," Ashback said.

Ashback spoke Thursday to the joint House/Senate Committee on Judiciary, which traveled to Pendleton to hold a hearing to address several methamphetamine-related bills up for consideration of the state Legislature.

Thursday began with testimony from local and other professionals in reference to the bills and the growing meth problem in Umatilla County and Oregon. The afternoon session was reserved for public testimony, during which Ashback asked to speak.

Ashback emphasized the importance of utilizing the jails for drug offenders because it often serves as a catalyst for treatment.

Ashback's testimony was just one of 13 from the public who spoke at Thursday's hearing in the Science and Technology building at Blue Mountain Community College.

Bob Wright, executive director of the Eastern Oregon Alcoholism Foundation, agreed with Ashback on the issue of making sure offenders are put into jail, not just sent back out onto the streets, an action that occurs often because of a lack of funding to support more correctional staff. Currently, the Umatilla County Jail runs at 110 beds when there are 250 beds in the facility.

"Drug traffickers need to be inconvenienced when caught, put in jail, locked up, not released," Wright said. "Meth is a scourge - not a drug, but a poison. Thugs should not be allowed to overpopulate our communities."

Stephen Donnell, of La Grande, was the first to speak from the public, and also stressed the value of keeping offenders in jail rather than immediate release due to overcrowding.

"We need to set up a program where these people spend at least a year in jail," Donnell said. "If offenders can spend $30 or $40 a day on their addiction to meth, then they can use that money to pay their way through jail."

Other public testimony highlighted the young victims of the meth epidemic. Lt. Craig Durbin of the Oregon State Police Drug Enforcement Section in Salem, told the panel about the extent of the contamination children are exposed to when they're living in a meth-induced environment.

"These kids' toys have 16,000 times the contamination levels (than is occupationally safe)," Durbin said. "Even their back packs may have those levels and they're taking those to school."

Rob Bovett, legal counsel to the Oregon Narcotics Enforcement Association and a member of the Governor's Meth Task Force, further emphasized Durbin's point.

"If we don't break this cycle of abuse, if we don't get a handle on it, today's drug-endangered children will be arrested by the children of today's law enforcement," Bovett said.

Students from Pendleton High School's government and history classes sat in the audience periodically throughout the day to take in the legislative process. They all left with a new appreciation for the state government, as well as for the meth issue at hand.

"I had no idea you could be contaminated without even using meth," said sophomore Jace McGrath after hearing Durbin's testimony.

McGrath said he enjoyed seeing for himself how the Senate and House committees work. "It makes you feel a part of it" by being able to be present at the hearing, he said.

"It's a lot different than reading about it," said sophomore Marie Bartlett. "I probably wouldn't have read about it, so this was good for me."

Some students thought that by coming to Pendleton, state government is taking a larger interest in Eastern Oregon and the issues in Umatilla County.

"It's good to see the state Legislature as a whole take more interest in us as a county," said senior Aaron Straughan.

Umatilla County Sheriff John Trumbo couldn't agree more.

"Just the mere fact that they took the time to drive over here ... shows how much they care about this issue," Trumbo said after Thursday's hearing. "I saw a lot of raised eyes at times when they heard about what's really going on."

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