Drug-induced homicide charges have rapidly increased since 2011, according to data collected by the Health In Justice Action Lab, a project of the Northeastern University School of Law. The lab found 23 cases total between 1974 and 2000, less than 100 a year through 2011, and exponential growth since: 326 in 2015, 495 in 2016, and 717 in 2017.
But this legislative change also speaks to the importance of DAs and their associations. The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association lobbied for the 2011 reform, asking lawmakers “to remove that malice requirement.” Other prosecutors demanded statutory changes elsewhere. Expanding prosecutors’ ability to charge people with drug-induced homicide was a priority for the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys this year, for instance. Madeline Singas, the Democratic DA of New York’s Nassau County, wrote draft legislation to the same effect.
With 49 Pennsylvania counties electing their DAs this year, the surge of homicide prosecutions could have been a core issue up for debate. The same goes for New York, home to 25 DA elections this year, and where prosecutors have also somewhat frequently charged people with homicide in the aftermath of an overdose. I have identified few counties where this has played out, though.
One candidate ruled out homicide charges, and three shared concerns
The Political Report contacted DA candidates running in the nine Pennsylvania counties and two New York counties with contested elections this year that have prosecuted at least six people for drug-induced homicide, based on the Health In Justice Action Lab’s data.
Across these eleven counties, only one candidate ruled out ever charging someone with homicide in the aftermath of an overdose.
It just so happens that this one candidate is running in Lancaster, the Pennsylvania county that has used this approach more frequently than any other county nationwide.
“We must prioritize treatment over punishment, and DDRD laws prioritize punishment over healing,” Hobie Crystle, the Democratic nominee in the Nov. 5 election, said in a statement emailed via a spokesperson. “That approach sends folks into the shadows. We need light and air to heal, so my office will not pursue DDRD charges. Period.” Crystle said DAs have other tools than homicide at their disposal to hold “profiteers who have caused a death” accountable. “We can punish peddlers of poison severely enough using regular drug delivery laws, without involving the families and loved ones of those who succumb to their illness,” he said.
Crystle’s stance sets up a potentially stark policy shift in Lancaster given the office’s current policies. Steadman, the Republican incumbent, is not seeking re-election. Heather Adams, the Republican nominee and a former prosecutor who now works as a criminal defense lawyer, did not answer multiple requests for comment. The Political Report could not identify her stance from her website or other reporting. Adams and Crystle have publicly disagreed on other issues such as the death penalty, which Adams supports and Crystle opposes.
Three other candidates shared their discomfort with drug-induced homicide prosecutions.
In Pennsylvania, Lisa Middleman (an independent in Allegheny County) and Jack Stollsteimer (the Democratic nominee in Delaware County) expressed concern that DDRD charges are used excessively against people with addiction issues and people who shared their drugs in the context of using them. Shani Curry Mitchell, the Democratic nominee in New York’s Monroe County (Rochester), said she saw no deterrent effect in drug-induced homicide prosecutions, and worried about the racial disparities in their use.
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