In writing the "Prescription: Addiction" series, I’ve talked to many families who have lost sons, daughters, brothers, or sisters to fatal heroin-related overdoses. These senseless losses have saddened and sickened me.
People who die at the hands of a contract killer, or accidentally in a bar fight, auto accident, or drug overdose, are equally dead. The pain and grief felt by their family and friends are equally crushing.
But how a victim dies should matter in court. There are plenty of appropriate ways to charge small-time drug dealers in fatal overdose cases. Except in exceptional circumstances, homicide should not be one of them.
A new charging policy by the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office treats fatal overdoses as homicide cases. This month, prosecutors charged Richard Gaines, 24, with involuntary manslaughter in the fatal overdose of an Oregon man. It was the first such case in Lucas County -- and one of the first in the state. There will be plenty more.
Mr. Gaines is charged in the Dec. 27 death of Michael Zacharias, 23, who died of an accidental overdose involving heroin and other drugs. In Ohio, involuntary manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.
As a strategy to fight an epidemic of drugs and addiction, overcharging doesn’t work. This isn’t a new way of doing business, as prosecutors say. It’s the same ol’, same ol’. It’s what prosecutors have done for four decades: hand down stiff sentences, including mandatory minimums, and long prison bits to arrest a drug problem. These policies have made the United States the world's leading incarcerator, without cutting crime or addiction.
The exact cause of death in overdose cases is usually uncertain. Mr. Zacharias, for example, had tranquilizers and marijuana in his system. The combination of drugs could have caused his death. We don’t know whether heroin alone would have done it. Even taking NyQuil after shooting up can trigger a fatal reaction.
Even involuntary manslaughter convictions usually require some reasonable expectation that certain actions would have lethal consequences. In the Toledo area, about three people a week die of heroin-related overdoses. Should anyone selling heroin expect a fatal overdose? Not necessarily. Users and addicts in northwest Ohio inject, snort, or swallow opioids thousands -- maybe tens of thousands -- of times a day without dying.
Prosecutors have talked a lot about "sending a message" in this case. But no one in the street is listening. There’s no evidence that overcharging and stiff sentences, including capital punishment, deter crime. If the seller is an addict, the penalties don’t matter — only the drug. And this new policy won’t just apply to drug dealers. It could also apply to addicts who sell small quantities to finance their habit, or even give drugs to a friend.
When prosecutors talk about "sending a message," watch out. It’s called the "criminal justice system." That means it should arrest, try, and convict people to render justice, not send messages.
It’s true that manslaughter and even second-degree murder charges are used in certain drunk-driving cases. But they’re reserved for exceptional cases. They’re not a routine part of a general policy.
Lucas County has done a lot right in dealing with an epidemic of addiction. Even law enforcement has focused on ways to get people into treatment. But a new policy of overcharging takes the county down the wrong road.