Ken and Bonnie Kline Smeltzer, both pastors, have always favored a restorative rather than a punitive approach to justice.
When a person does something wrong, he or she seeks forgiveness, makes amends and lives with some consequences but is also rehabilitated and, in the end, restored to a full, productive place in society. That’s their philosophy.
“We believe that God gives us chance after chance and hope things work for the best, and that’s what we think we need to do as a community,” Ken said.
That belief has led them to advocate for a sentence of treatment and recovery support for Ryan Kemp, 28, of Pennsylvania Furnace, the man convicted in the death of their 21-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Kline Smeltzer died in Kemp’s home early in the morning of Jan. 25. The day before, police said, Kemp traveled to Williamsport to pick up heroin and clonazepam and invited Kline Smeltzer to his home to use the drugs.
Kemp was arrested in March, charged with three felony counts of manufacture and possession with intent to deliver, a misdemeanor possession charge and drug delivery resulting in death, the most serious of the charges. He was found guilty of all charges in a non-jury trial before Judge Bradley P. Lunsford on Oct. 27 and will be sentenced Monday.
The maximum sentence for the delivery resulting in death charge is 40 years in prison, and although there is no mandatory minimum, the bottom end of the standard range for someone with no prior record is five years, Casey McClain, Kemp’s public defender, said.
“The shame about this crime is that it so harshly punishes people who are most likely drug addicts themselves,” McClain said in an email.
Kemp had had struggles with substance abuse in the past. He worked at Hershey Medical Center and lost that job because of drug use, his mother, Mary Kemp, said. He attended counseling for addiction after losing the job, she said. Court documents indicate he also has a prior possession charge, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation in 2013.
Elizabeth Kline Smeltzer also struggled with addiction. She was a recreational user and had overdosed on heroin before, her father said. She had a possession charge that resulted in an accelerated rehabilitative disposition sentence a few years before her death.
“Unless someone lives with addiction issues, it’s easy to say, ‘Lock him up and throw away the key,’ ” Bonnie Kline Smeltzer said.
Accountability with opportunity
The family never felt any animosity toward Kemp or his family after Elizabeth’s death, her mother said. Their daughter was ultimately responsible for her own actions, they say. That’s not to say they aren’t angry about what happened, Bonnie Kline Smeltzer said.
But they’re trying to turn that anger and pain into something positive so another young adult is not lost to drug abuse.
They met Kemp after the trial and spoke to him for 20 minutes. He told them how he and their daughter had met and said he wanted to get to know her better, Ken Kline Smeltzer said. He said Kept was sorry about what had happened.
“We believe he’s truly remorseful and wanted to be friends with Lizzie and had no intentions of harming her in any way,” he said.
Kemp would benefit most with treatment, recovery and community service instead of a long incarceration, the Kline Smeltzers said.
A sentence of no longer than two years in jail, coupled with treatment and recovery support for drug abuse in prison and upon release would make him accountable for his actions and provide him with an opportunity to lead a productive life afterward, they said, adding that there’s nothing to be gained for anyone, especially not Kemp, by a lengthy prison sentence.
“For me, what would honor my daughter’s life is for Ryan to deal with his addiction, to get out of jail and to have a productive, meaningful life,” Bonnie said. “That would honor Lizzie.”
Body of law and sentencing guidelines
Judge Jonathan Grine will determine the sentence Kemp receives at 3 p.m. Monday in the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte.
Bonnie Kline Smeltzer is the pastor at University Baptist and Brethren Church in State College, and she and her husband have encouraged the congregation and their friends to write to Grine to ask for a sentence in line with what the family desires.
They also will deliver impact statements on his behalf in court.
The family has been in contact with the Centre County District Attorney’s Office, which will recommend a sentence. The Kline Smeltzers sent an email and a letter to the office and twice met with District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller and Assistant District Attorney Nathan Boob, who prosecuted the case, about pursuing a route focused on treatment rather than incarceration.
It was clear there was disagreement over which approach to take, Ken Kline Smeltzer said. They were told that a stricter sentence must be sought because there had been a death.
Parks Miller said her office always seeks the positions of victims and their families when determining a recommended sentence to deliver to the court. They care about these views and take them into account but must also consider other factors, such as the law and sentencing guidelines set by the state legislature, she said.
Recommended sentences are not arbitrarily determined but are based on a body of law, she said. If a sentence goes above or below the guidelines, it is subject to appeal.
Parks Miller said the intentions of the Kline Smeltzers are “admirable,” but these guidelines require a longer sentence than they would like to see.
“The reality is that this is a very serious charge and his actions directly resulted in her death, and the legislature takes that seriously and my office takes that seriously,” she said.
Parks Miller did not say what sentence her office would seek for Kemp, but McClain said a five- to 20-year sentence was offered before trial.
‘A bigger picture’
The Kline Smeltzers also hope that the case and the way it is handled might change the way drug addiction and use are viewed and dealt with in Centre County.
Treating addiction as a disease and not as a crime would be a step in the right direction, they said. The addition of a drug or treatment court, which other counties in the commonwealth have, also would provide others with a chance to be accountable and become productive members of the community afterward, they said.
“It’s much bigger than Lizzie and Ryan,” Bonnie said. “It’s about a bigger picture with the heroin.”