Overdoses on fentanyl, an uber-potent synthetic opioid, are the main driver of the opioid crisis: deaths related to the drug more than doubled from 2015 to 2016, killing nearly 20,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pennsylvania is a locus of the crisis. In 2016, fentanyl was present in over half of the overdoses in the state. And yet despite PR-savvy law enforcement messaging about a “public health response” to mitigate the toll, district attorneys there are doubling down on harsh, punitive drug laws. “The stronger we can be in our state sentencing, the better,” Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, recently said during a roundtable discussion on opioids. “Stiffer penalties for fentanyl would go a long way in helping us.”
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association supports Shapiro’s push for increasing sentences for fentanyl-related crimes. “An increase in the sentencing guidelines for #fentanyl will help prevent deaths,” the Pennsylvania DAs Association tweeted on December 11. “PA Sentencing Commission is considering changes.”
Many advocates, however, believe that increasing sentences for drug crimes will do little to reduce overdose deaths and prevent people struggling with addiction from seeking help in the first place. Addiction is a chronic medical condition, yet it is still being treated as a sin or a crime, say advocates who specialize in public health, criminal justice and addiction recovery.
“The [public health] rhetoric doesn’t match with the prosecutory practice,” Devin Reaves, a recovery advocate who studied social work at the University of Pennsylvania, told In Justice Today about the recent push for stiffer drug penalties. “In Pennsylvania, we need to embrace the ideals of harm reduction: How do we lessen the harm of an inherently racist War on Drugs?”
“Those are the questions prosecutors should be asking,” adds Reaves, “I am a huge of fan of Josh Shapiro, I just think he’s off on this one issue.”
Bill Stauffer, co-chair of the public policy committee at Faces & Voices of Recovery, who has been sober for 31 years, told In Justice Today that he’s worried about mandatory minimums being applied to people with addiction. “The legislation I’ve looked at emphasizes going after high level distributors,” he said. “But that’s generally not what happens. We’re quite concerned about going down this road again — we don’t want to reinvigorate the prison system.” Stauffer, who lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania, hopes to see his state expand access to treatment, not punishment.
A new report by the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent nonprofit research and policy organization, shares Reaves’ and Stauffer’s concerns. “Increased enforcement and severity of punishment has not reduced illicit drug use or associated crime,” the report concludes. “It has, however, led to more incarceration and exacerbated racial disparities in the criminal justice system, with particularly devastating impacts on black communities.”
“Fentanyl is clearly a huge problem, so we need to focus on the extent to which its driving overdoses,” Jim Parsons, research director at Vera and an author on the new report, told In Justice Today. “All the evidence shows that a harm reduction approach is the most effective way to respond to health consequences. The problem with a punitive response is it means people are less likely to contact authorities when someone is experiencing an overdose or other health crisis.”
Law enforcement officials are often quoted in news media saying, “We cannot arrest our way out of addiction” and that they don’t write the laws, but merely enforce them. Prosecutors in Pennsylvania, however, are choosing to prosecute overdoses as homicides and are advocating, without evidence, that stiffer drug penalties will help save lives and help their state ravaged by overdoses. Since 2013, nearly half of all homicide cases in Cumberland County have been for “drug delivery resulting in death.” Yet the overdose death rate continues its steep rise.
“For the past 30 years we’ve had this tough on crime approach,” says Reaves. “And it has not only not worked, but has made things worse.”