Heroin Cases Overwhelming Courthouses


FREDERICK COUNTY, Va. -  The rise in heroin use across the four-state region is forcing local courthouses to rethink their prosecuting options.

"It seems to me, our current our judicial system is at a crossroads where we need to determine if we are going to spend more tax payer money locking people up and throwing away the key, or whether we want to treat this like it's a healthcare problem, and treat the disease,” said Winchester Defense Attorney, Phillip Griffin.

Treatment gives addicts a chance to improve themselves and kick their heroin habit. Unfortunately, heroin is so addictive, that even with treatment 87 percent of addicts will relapse within the first year.

"If someone is willing, knowing that they might die from this, and they keep using, it makes you wonder what kind of prison term would cause somebody to quit," said Marc Abrams, the Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney for Winchester.

In Northwest Virginia, the amount heroin cases are inundating the court system. Each case also leads to a rise in the use of community resources like rehabilitation facilities, foster care and shelters.

There are also major issues when it comes to drug-related deaths. Virginia has a hard time prosecuting individuals who distribute heroin that result in an overdose death, because that specific charge exists only on a federal level.

"We're taking the majority of our overdose death cases federally, because it's easier to process on a federal level,” said Special Agent Jay Perry of the Northwestern Regional Drug and Gang Task Force.

"We need some changes in the statutes that will allow us to do that,” said Abrams. “The feds have a pretty powerful statute, [although] I’m not saying we should model it after that."

Under federal statues, anyone charged with distribution of heroin that results in an overdose death faces a minimum mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison.

"Heroin will wreck your life. It will give you a felony conviction that will have over 50,000 various consequences over the rest of your lifetime,” said Griffin.

Some of those consequences include certain job ineligibility and a waived right to bear arms, hold public office or sit on a jury.

That mandatory minimum has caused a lot of controversy as some feel the sentence is much too high, and others feel it’s the only way to protect a heroin addict from the community, and ultimately, themselves.

"If you think about it, you're destroying two lives,” said Perry. “The life that was lost in the death, and the life that's going to do 20 years in federal prison.” When asked his personal opinion regarding mandatory minimums, Perry hesitated. “Is it the right answer? I don't know, but it's the tools that we have to work with right now."

Click here to see part one of this three-part series.

Note: Merris has been investigating different aspects of the recent heroin epidemic, and will have more tomorrow on how heroin is affecting local hospitals. 

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