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Treatment-first approach to the opioid epidemic? Not for local prosecutors

Treatment-first approach to the opioid epidemic? Not for local prosecutors


On Thursday, President Trump announced that his administration will soon declare the opioid crisis a national emergency, following the interim recommendation of his Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.

“We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis,” said Trump. “We are going to draw it up, and we are going to make it a national emergency.”

It was an about-face from just two days earlier, when Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told reporters that the administration already had the necessary resources to address the crisis without declaring it an emergency. It’s unclear why the president changed his mind and decided to heed the proposal from his own committee.

Regardless, the committee’s report has drawn praise for its treatment-first recommendations to stem the opioid overdose crisis, which the report says is killing an average of 142 Americans every day. A far cry from the familiar war on drugs rhetoric of the 1980s and ’90s that contributed to the sentencing policies that continue to fill U.S. prisons, members of Trump’s commission advocate for a public health, rather than law enforcement approach to opioid addiction.

Meanwhile, many local politicians — prosecutors — apparently haven’t gotten the memo. Elected district attorneys across the country are cracking down on opioid use by resurrecting long dormant “drug-induced homicide” laws, triggering lengthy sentences for those who sell or share opioids to individuals who overdose.

“The rhetoric right now is one of compassion, and is one that is focused on health and harm reduction, but the reality is that we’re seeing the criminalization of overdoses,” says Lindsay LaSalle, a staff attorney with Drug Policy Alliance.

While targeting people who sell drugs might seem like a logical way to address the vast number of overdoses or discourage drug use, it’s just not that simple.

“People who are engaged in the behavior of selling or sharing [opioids] often also have an addiction,” says Dr. Yngvild Olsen, board member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

“It’s a tempting and perhaps easier response to say well, these are bad people we need to prosecute to the maximum extent of the law,” Yngvild continued, “but in my experience, eight or nine times out of ten, [selling] is how people are managing their disease.”

Beyond the complex reality of who is and isn’t grappling with opioid addiction in tragic overdose scenarios, research illustrates that long prison sentences in the absence of drug treatment don’t deter crime or drive down drug sales or use. District attorneys seeking to impose these sentences may intend to target drug kingpins or high-level dealers, but that’s generally not who is bearing the brunt of the punishment.

In Wisconsin, where 10,000 people have died from drug overdoses since 2000, Fox6 news reporters investigated more than 500 drug-related homicide cases to find out who was getting sent to prison. Their study, released in February, found that of the 100 most recent drug-related homicide cases in southeastern Wisconsin, only 11 defendants were “at least one step removed from the direct sale or delivery of drugs” to the overdose victim. The others charged with homicide were friends or relatives of the victims, or low-level dealers.

“Prosecutors talk about getting the bigger fish or kingpins, but those cases never come to fruition because as a legal matter it’s incredibly difficult to prove murder for someone ten steps removed,” says LaSalle. “But it’s very easy for the person who literally handed the person the drugs.”

To Yngvild, the homicide-charge approach to overdose deaths is misguided, but she understands why prosecutors are taking it. “Communities are being devastated, and people in law enforcement are seeing people lose their lives day in and day out,” she says. “This is something they actually feel like they can do.”

But for those struggling with addiction who are now in prison, many of whom don’t have access to treatment programs, little help is given and few lessons are learned. While the opioid crisis is a relatively new phenomenon, tackling drug use and abuse with the criminal justice system is not. Now it’s up to local prosecutors to take a look at their well-trod history.

Top Five Articles On Bail Reform Last Week

Top Five Articles On Bail Reform Last Week


There is widespread agreement that the bail system is broken. Millions of people annually sit in local jails without conviction because they cannot afford bail, and 75% of pretrial detainees have been charged only with drug or property crimes. The effect is that bail needlessly causes people to lose their jobs, not be able to care for their children, and to lose contact with their loved ones.

Here are the best five articles on the national move toward bail reform last week.

  1. Tracy Garth was taken to jail for traffic violations. She couldn’t get a friend to bail her out because she was denied access to a phone for two weeks and was not allowed to take her purse. Garth is suing law enforcement for civil rights violations. [The Tennessean / Elaina Sauber]. See Also:Miriam Aroni Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor, and Winnebago County, WI, District Attorney Christian Gossett write in USA Today that money bail unfairly criminalizes poverty.
  2. After pressure from local groups, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez returned campaign donations from the bail bonds industry. [NY Daily News / Erin Durkin]. See Also: The leader of Empire Bail Bonds, who posts racially insensitive material on social media, had contributed $7,500 to D.A. Gonzalez’s campaign. [In Justice Today / Carimah Townes]
  3. An editorial advised New Jersey residents to ignore reality TV star Duane “Dog” Chapman in policy debates after New Jersey eschewed cash bail reform. It read: “By and large, the bail initiative is working.” [South Jersey Times / Editorial Board]. See Also: Peter Krouse wrote for the Plain Dealer in June about how Connecticut and Illinois embraced bail reform while a California bill stalled by one vote in the State Assembly, after intense lobbying from Chapman.
  4. The National Conference of State Legislatures met in Boston to discuss bail reform, with lawmakers stating it “ultimately pay off by reducing incarceration and recidivism rates.” In Massachusetts, two legislators recently introduced a bill to cut down on cash bail and develop a risk-assessment tool. [Boston Globe / Katie Lannan]. See also: Shira Schoenberg explains the Massachusetts bail reform bill at the Springfield Republican.
  5. Bay Area residents read praise for Senators Kamala Harris and Rand Paul after they introduced a national bail reform bill. This is because the two senators are “jump-starting the national conversation.” [The Mercury News / Editorial Board]. See Also: Larry Hannan explains the federal bill at In Justice Today.

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Even in the deep red South, death sentences are on the decline

Even in the deep red South, death sentences are on the decline


Twenty years ago, a brutal murder in a red state like Mississippi would likely guarantee a death sentence for a defendant. But as last week’s sentencing of Scotty Lakeith Street illustrates, juries in the South and across the country continue to shift away from capital punishment. In 1997, four people inMississippi were sentenced to death; last year, 2016, not one person was. Street was sentenced to life without parole for stabbing retired teacher Frankie Fairley to death in 2014. The jury in Street’s trial, faced with a choice between the death penalty or life in prison, couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict, and split 10–2.

Fairley’s murder was undeniably tragic — that much was not up for debate. But Jackson County District Attorney Tony Lawrence’s recounting of the gruesome details wasn’t enough to convince all 12 members of the jury that Street deserved to die at the hands of the state.

Those that opted for life without parole may have been swayed by Street’s extensive history of mental illness. As reported by WLOXjurors heard testimony from his sister that Street had “been institutionalized so much, it’s beyond my count.” Street’s lawyers also presented testimony from a mental health provider who explained that Street suffered from schizophrenia and “needed to be in a group home with a caregiver.” Street was also reported to have displayed “bizarre behavior,” including “putting plastic bags on his head to keep his brain from leaking out and running naked in public with objects tied to his scrotum.”

This is far from the first time testimony about a defendant’s mental illness has informed a jury’s decision to oppose a capital sentence. In 2015, a Washington state jury chose a life sentence for James McEnroe, who was convicted after killing six members of his girlfriend’s family. Jurors who chose the life sentence pointed to his documented “mental health issues” as one of the reasons they chose to spare him from the death penalty. That same year, Colorado jurors sentenced James Holmes to life without parole, after her shot twelve people in an Aurora movie theater. A juror told the Denver Post that “the issue of mental illness was everything for the one [juror] who did not want to impose the death penalty.” Across the country, the mental illness of defendants has increasingly become reason not to impose the death penalty.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court bars the death penalty for those with intellectual disabilities, that legal definition is fairly narrow and does not bar the execution of many mentally ill people. A 2017 study from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill found that 43 percent of prisoners executed between 2000 and 2015 were diagnosed with mental illness at some point in their lives.

Mental illness aside, death sentences are on the decline across the country. Last year, 30 people were sentenced to death in the U.S., while in the mid-1990s, more than 300 people received capital sentences. That decline in popularity is reflected in Street’s case, as well as in other Mississippi capital cases. Though the death penalty’s legality remains alive and well, juries across the country are rejecting it.

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