EDITORIAL: Charges aren't curbing drug deaths

The York Dispatch Editorial Board
Drug Delivery Resulting in Death
York Dispatch Graphic

The road to poor policy is paved with good intentions.

And that might be precisely what's happening now in Lancaster and York counties, which rank first and second nationally in the number prosecutions of dealers whose drugs ultimately result in an overdose death, according to data compiled by Lumina Analytics and Northeastern University School of Law.

Prosecuting dealers similarly to those charged with homicide — dubbed drug delivery resulting in death — is one tool among many for combating the region's opioid crisis, said District Attorneys Dave Sunday and Craig Stedman, who represent York County and Lancaster County respectively. They admit that the drug epidemic won't be solved with judicial blunt force alone.

And yet, their offices are wielding prosecutorial hammers more forcefully than anywhere else in the country. In fact, seven of the 10 most aggressive counties in the U.S. for prosecuting dealers are in Pennsylvania, according to the data. 

Make no mistake, opioids have ravaged the state. And, right here in York County, the death toll remains stubbornly high. Just this past week, a frustrated Coroner Pam Gay told The York Dispatch that her office had responded to eight overdoses in a one-week span.

But, even so, Pennsylvania is not the national leader in overdoses per capita among the states. West Virginia owns that dubious distinction, says the Centers for Disease Control. Ohio, too, outpaces Pennsylvania in overdoses when the data is adjusted for age and total population. 

And, while bad, neither York nor Lancaster sit atop national death rates by county, either. 

More:York, Lancaster lead nation in number of fatal overdose charges, data shows

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's opioid death rate continues to rise, according to CDC data. In York County, there were 172 overdose deaths in 2018, and Coroner Pam Gay said the county has seen about 11 fewer deaths so far this year compared to the same time last year.

The severe application of the law doesn't appear to be having a dramatic effect. 

Put simply, the statistics say Sunday and Stedman are acting with a disproportionate level of judicial aggression that, critics contend, bleeds cash from treatment and discourages people from dialing 911 when an overdose does occur. 

It's been more than 40 years since President Richard Nixon kicked off his "War on Drugs" amid anti-Vietnam protests. It's more than 30 since President Ronald Reagan doubled down on his predecessor's efforts. And history of late hasn't been kind to either president's crackdown.

State after state has spent the past five years unwinding their versions of draconian drug laws that have crushed so many poor neighborhoods and communities of color. In 2018, President Donald Trump, a man whose 2016 campaign centered on "law and order," signed a sweeping overhaul of federal sentencing laws, a rollback of Nixonian laws that had been championed for years in Congress by Republicans and Democrats alike. 

In perhaps one of the most divided moments in a century, disapproval of expensive, heavy-handed drug laws garnered a fleeting moment of political unity. 

They just don't work. 

This is by no means an argument opposing prosecution of drug dealers for slinging their goods. But prosecuting as killers family, friends and fellow addicts for essentially being the one who doesn't die is vindictive and counterproductive.  

And all that context makes the prosecutorial decisions made by Stedman and Sunday appear even worse. Theirs is an anachronistic approach that's at odds with U.S. policy at large. It prosecutes addicts in need of treatment and foists the cost on the taxpayer.

And it's all done for a sense of payback. But vengeance will not resurrect those killed by drugs, nor is it likely to save others, judging by the data. 

— Editor's note: This editorial has been updated with the latest information on overdose deaths from York County Coroner Pam Gay.