Criminal charges in accidental overdose deaths criticized


John Futty - The Columbus Dispatch (TNS)



The Franklin County prosecutor’s office is among the most active in the nation in prosecuting those who cause fatal opioid overdoses, according to a study by a Massachusetts law school.

The practice was criticized Wednesday by a group of law school professors who called the prosecutions counterproductive in addressing the opioid addiction crisis and asked the Ohio Sentencing Commission to examine the issue.

“We are deeply concerned that, rather than using evidence-based treatment and intervention to stem the opioid crisis, critical resources are being spent on prosecuting and incarcerating people who are struggling with substance-use disorder,” the professors wrote to the commission.

The five who signed the letter include Douglas Berman, director of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

The letter cites a study by the Health in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, which found that Franklin ranked 17th among all counties in the nation and third in Ohio in the number of times it filed homicide charges in fatal opioid overdoses from 2000 through April of this year.

Franklin, with 23 such prosecutions, trailed Cuyahoga County (31) and Clermont County (28). There were a total of 385 prosecutions in Ohio, according to the study, which surveyed online news sources.

Although news reports frequently mention that the cases are brought only against drug dealers, the letter states, “often the people who are being prosecuted are individuals who struggle with substance abuse themselves,” including family members or friends who were co-using with the person who died.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien said that, in the past five years, his office has prosecuted 29 people for involuntary manslaughter for supplying the opioids that led to a fatal overdose. He could think of only one case where the defendant was not a drug dealer.

“Our goal with these cases is targeting drug traffickers,” he said.

The number of prosecutions is small compared to the number of overdose deaths, O’Brien said. Last year, more than 475 people died of overdoses in the county, according to Columbus Public Health.

Prosecutions are just one part of the “tool box” in Franklin County for addressing the drug problem, which increasingly involves directing addicts into treatment programs rather than jail, he said.

Berman said he suggested that the group’s letter go to the Ohio Sentencing Commission because there hasn’t been adequate research about the overdose prosecutions in Ohio.

“We’ re reaching out to them to see if they can can collect data” that would provide an analysis of the cases prosecuted and the consequences, he said. “We don’t know enough about what’s driving this phenomenon.”

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John Futty

The Columbus Dispatch (TNS)

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