PDAA Heroin Testimony, John T. Adams
My name is John T. Adams. I am the District Attorney of Berks County. I have been involved in the Criminal Justice System for almost 30 years serving as a Probation Officer, Assistant District Attorney, Defense Attorney and now District Attorney.
First of all, thank you for giving me this opportunity to address this panel in regard to the heroin crisis facing our State. I have said on many occasions that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. I have supported and have continued to support a three prong approach to this epidemic.
I will discuss with you the problems we face here in Berks County. What we are doing and my suggestions to help combat the issue state wide and also the impact that heroin is causing in our community.
First of all, we will not arrest our way out of this problem. Secondly, we cannot on the state level stop the flow of drugs into our country but we need to pressure our federal representatives that action needs to be taken on the Federal level to stop the Mexican cartels from polluting our country with heroin. Our local intelligence has documented on many occasions that Mexico is the main source of heroin into our country and particularly the State of Pennsylvania. While I will concede that it is not the only source, our Federal government needs to take immediate measures to sanction Mexico for not taking action to stop Mexican cartels from exporting large amounts of heroin into our country. We also need federal law enforcement efforts to be stepped up to stop large scale drug trafficking into our country. However, we are here today to talk about Pennsylvania and what we can do here in Pennsylvania.
First of all, we need to educate our citizens. We are doing that here in our county and one of the things we’re teaching, is that there is a direct correlation to the abuse of prescription drugs and the subsequent use of heroin. I am sure that the experts in treatment will reiterate to you that many of the individuals who become addicted to heroin started their path of destruction with the use and abuse of prescription drugs. Our interviews with users whom we arrest confirm this. We need to take the steps to stop the use and abuse of prescription drugs.
Here in Berks County we rolled out a medication drop box program in March 2013. This program has been a huge success. This program was a joint venture in our county between The Council on Chemical Abuse led by George Vogel, the Solid Waste Authority led by Jane Meeks and the District Attorney’s Office led by myself. We now have 23 drop boxes located throughout the police departments in our county. We have collected to date 3,063 pounds of medication since the inception of this program. This program has been a successful effort to remove these drugs from the medicine cabinets of the residents of our County so that these drugs cannot be accessible to young adults who use them then abuse them, then become addicted. When these individuals cannot afford to continue their addiction with prescription drugs, they turn to heroin, a cheaper alternative. The medication drop box program with the assistance of the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association is now a state wide program.
Many counties throughout the state are rolling out these programs as we speak. This program could continue to be enhanced in many rural areas of our state if we could get the Pennsylvania State Police to participate in installing these medication drop boxes in their barracks. In many rural areas, the only police department is the Pennsylvania State Police. Encouraging their buy in to this program would continue to permit us to grow this program which has proved to very beneficial.
Senate Bill 1180
I also strongly encourage the legislators present at this meeting and others to contact your respective legislators to pass Senate Bill 1180. This legislation will update and upgrade Pennsylvania’s inadequate prescription drug monitoring program. I have attached for your review, a letter in support of this Bill which was prepared by the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association and sets forth many reasons why this program is desperately needed in this state. Most disturbing to me is that the State of Pennsylvania is 1 of only 2 states that does not have a prescription drug monitoring program.
We need to stop the dysfunction in Harrisburg and pass this bill to set up a prescription drug monitoring program. We need to expand our presently very weak prescription drug database. This bill will allow us to stop and control prescription drug abuse. This prescription drug abuse leads to deaths. I have attached for your review the most recent statistics from our county. This Bill will help us identify major sources of prescription drug diversion such as prescription fraud, forgeries, doctor shopping and improper prescribing and dispensing of prescription drugs. Other states with viable proactive programs have lower rates of treatment admissions and much less doctor shopping. We have had not only a large amount of heroin deaths in our county but a lot of deaths from prescription medication overdoses or a combination of both. As a matter of fact, almost every toxicology coroner’s report is forwarded to me since this epidemic became obvious. I’ve personally reviewed all of those toxicology reports and it is clear from the reading of those reports that most people who die have ingested numerous prescription drugs and many others have ingested prescription drugs AND heroin.
In our county, I have seen many examples of the heart wrenching effects heroin has played on people’s lives. I have received calls personally from family members concerned about their children, and about the effects that heroin has taken on their children and families. I realize that throwing away the key is not the answer. However, some people’s behavior which is fueled by addiction has to be met with substantial incarceration because of the heinous crimes that they commit caused by the abuse of heroin. I have seen families torn apart. I have seen otherwise good people commit serious crimes because heroin and its addictive properties drive an otherwise law abiding person to become a criminal.
In Berks County, we are trying to divert many non-violent offenders who are drug addicts to our Drug Treatment Courts. Our Drug Treatment Court is an intensive 18 month program. It provides the highest level of supervision and has non-violent offenders and other individuals facing probation and parole violations participating in this court. Our drug court has 4 phases. Phases 1 and 2 the defendants are required to appear before Judge Stephen Lieberman twice per month. In Phases 3 and 4, the defendants are required to appear in court once per month. In addition to appearing in court, participants are required to submit to random and regular urine tests. Additionally, they must meet with assigned adult probation officers regularly, must attend drug treatment, both individual and group treatment and if they are not employed must work with an employment specialist who assists participants in finding employment. Additionally, there are regular meetings among the professionals in treatment court. The meetings include Judge Lieberman, representatives from my office, the Public Defender’s Office, Adult Probation Office, Berks County Pretrial Services and treatment providers from TASC, Pennsylvania Counseling and Service Access Management. Defendants must sign waivers with their treatment providers so the team knows whether the participants are attending all scheduled treatment sessions. If the participants do not follow all requirements of the program, they are subject to sanctions by Judge Lieberman including jail sanctions and possible removal from the problem. But for those who do participate, and participate successfully in the program, there is a carrot. For people with new charges, if the participant completes the program, he or she will avoid jail time and receive a probationary sentence. That sentence may include a dismissal of the charges pursuant to 35 Pa.C.S.A. §780-117, 118. For other participants who are on supervision, they can avoid jail time and receive a probationary sentence. Many individuals who successfully complete this program avoid jail time which means a cost savings for the taxpayers of Berks County and our State.
We need to receive continued funding for these specialty courts as it not only benefits offenders to get them the help that they desperately need but it decreases our prison population which saves the taxpayers money.
Finally, enforcement from the District Attorney’s perspective. I know there has been a big push from our Courts and our Legislators to decrease punishment for drug offenders. I caution you that we cannot stop those who sell drugs from continuing in their business unless we give them an incentive to stop. The only way to deter this behavior is to allow appropriate penalties to be invoked which will result in a lengthy state prison sentence for those in the “business” of selling drugs. In Berks County, mandatory sentences have been ruled unconstitutional. Drug dealers need to face consequences in order to send a message that those who are in the “business” of selling drugs will face consequences. If our mandatory sentencing scheme is ruled unconstitutional, I encourage you to consider enacting some Mandatory Sentencing schemes for those involved in the distribution of large amounts of controlled substances. We need to have appropriate penalties to deter people from becoming a drug dealer. I use those words cautiously though. There are those who may deal drugs to support their own addiction and there are those who are in the “business”. Those in the “business” generally use violence or the threat of violence to carry out their trade. They are well armed. Those in the “business” of selling drugs must be sanctioned with stiff mandatory penalties for peddling this poison in our communities.