York DA: Police investigating more fatal opioid ODs since COVID-19, arrests remain steady

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
Photo illustration by Dawn J. Sagert

Police and prosecutors in York County are still thoroughly investigating opioid overdose deaths and going after suppliers with felony charges, even as those deaths continue to rise in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, District Attorney Dave Sunday said.

"The number of overdose deaths have certainly increased … during the COVID-19 timeframe," which generates more investigations, he said. "Everybody's resources are very taxed right now. Everybody's doing the best they can to stay on top of the crimes that are occurring."

The additional investigations since spring 2020 haven't generated a higher number of drug delivery resulting in death charges, however, Sunday said.

Drug delivery resulting in death (DDRD) is akin in seriousness to third-degree murder, with a maximum possible sentence of 20 to 40 years in prison, although in York County the bulk of those cases end with shorter prison sentences.

Critics including Northeastern University School of Law's Health in Justice Action Lab argue that charging addicts is doing nothing to stop the opioid epidemic, and that many people charged with the offense aren't dealers at all — they are simply fellow users who also are suffering with a devastating addiction, and sometimes family and friends.

Those charged with the offense who are dealers tend to be low-level, and a disproportionate number are people of color, according to the Health in Justice Action Lab, which said enforcing the law can discourage people from calling 911 when someone is overdosing.

Range of punishments: Sunday said his office seeks the maximum sentence for predatory dealers and in egregious cases, but generally not for fellow users simply sharing opioids, who regularly plead guilty to lesser charges for shorter sentences, many of which are crafted to include drug and mental-health treatment.

"Just like any other charge that exists, we assess the defendant in totality and holistically look at these individuals. In criminal justice, there is no 'one size fits all' answer to everything," the DA said. "There are people out there who absolutely couldn't care less if their product kills people. And those individuals need to be held accountable."

Sunday said the reality is about 95% of people who serve prison time will be released at some point, "so we're spending a lot of time working … to keep people from committing more crimes."

The goal is to increase public safety and reduce high costs of incarceration where appropriate, he said, and he noted that the current York County Prison population is about 1,200 inmates, down from about 2,000 inmates eight years ago.

2020 cases so far: "We had 67 DDRD criminal cases between Jan. 1, 2015, through Dec. 31, 2019," Sunday told The York Dispatch this week.

So far this year, county prosecutors have filed charges in seven such cases, according to Sunday, who described the number as an "astronomically low percentage" of the roughly 10,000 criminal cases filed each year in York County.

Despite that, York and Lancaster counties still have the highest rates of filing the charge in the state, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (see graphic).

The AOPC DDRD data tabulates case numbers by counting each docket with the offense. The York County District Attorney's Office said it counts DDRD cases by the number of victims.

"Our law enforcement takes this seriously. I'm not saying others don't, but here we have a concerted effort … to identify dealers who are killing people," Sunday said, and it amounts to intense investigations and hard work. "We have made this a priority — to identify suppliers and hold them accountable."

Sunday said he's fielded media calls asking whether charging people with drug delivery resulting in death decreases opioid abuse.

Northeastern University experts argue it doesn't affect the addiction rate or slow opioid sales.

"My answer is, there are one hundred or more different things we do as a society to try to reduce opioid use," Sunday said, but holding suppliers accountable isn't one of them.

"It is punitive," he said. "You can't just attack the demand and ignore the supply, or vice versa."

Overdose numbers: The DA said stressors related to the coronavirus pandemic have caused opioid overdose deaths to increase again in 2020 after dropping over the past two years.

York County Corner Pam Gay said so far in 2020 there have been 171 confirmed opioid overdose deaths, with 164 of them being caused either by fentanyl or heroin. Both Gay and Sunday say fentanyl is causing the vast majority of those fatalities.

There are currently 18 cases of suspected overdose, according to the coroner, who said she expects testing will eventually confirm that the majority of them are opioid overdoses.

Since March, the coroner's office has handled an average of nearly 20 deaths or more per month, she said.

"That's almost double of what it was last year at this time," Gay said. In 2018 and 2019, the number was consistently dropping, she said.

"It's terrible and frustrating and exhausting … for the community and our staff," the coroner said, adding she at one point was considering renting extra refrigerated space in case the eight- or nine-berth morgue at York Hospital couldn't handle the extra opioid deaths.

That didn't need to happen because York Hospital, which provides morgue space to the county, and Gay came up with a working system. The county is in the process of creating a separate morgue for the coroner's office.

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday

'Fertile environment': Sunday said those suffering from addiction are being hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, both those actively using and those in recovery.

People have lost jobs and been evicted from homes, others fear they will suffer the same fate, and that economic uncertainty has helped fuel opioid abuse and relapse, he said.

Many people in recovery rely on human contact to remain strong, including attending in-person group counseling and meetings of Narcotics Anonymous, but they are having a much harder time finding those meetings because of COVID-19, according to Sunday.

"We have a fertile environment right now for these overdose deaths," the DA said. "We as a community have made such great strides. My hope is … we can work through this and get back on track to the place we were prior to COVID-19."

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.

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