Nearly half of all cases that began in the court system in Cumberland County in 2014 were directly associated to drugs or alcohol, according to Cumberland County Insight.
That number grows even larger when crimes like theft, forgery or burglary that are committed to feed a drug habit are thrown into the mix, according to Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed.
“So much of what we deal with in the criminal justice system has the involvement of drugs or alcohol,” Freed said. “... On any given day or any given week numerous people are arrested and taken through our booking center. The vast majority of those, certainly now, have to do with heroin or opiate abuse. It’s perhaps the sale or possession of those products or it’s things like retail theft. Somebody is shoplifting to get goods to trade for drugs.”
Freed said more and more individuals entering the criminal justice system are coming in with an addiction to heroin and opiates, which can make recovery more difficult.
“In the past we were dealing with were crack cocaine, marijuana and a little bit of the other stuff,” he said. “Now, the pendulum has really swung towards heroin and opiates, and those addictions are frankly more debilitating than others.”
Freed said his office tries to take an approach of treating addicts while punishing dealers.
He recently came under fire from the ACLU of Pennsylvania for his department’s use of civil forfeiture, but Freed defended the practice saying it is another tool at his disposal to disrupt the illegal drug trade.
“The task for the system is to try to make a determination of who’s actually the dealer or are these addicts sharing,” he said.
That is not always an easy task.
Freed said one of the problems is that when a person with a substance abuse problem gets to his office, they are likely well into their addiction.
“I have decent memory for names, so I’ll see names come through on a file and say ‘Oh, we’ve seen that person before,’” he said. “Often when it’s a person sliding into the throes of addiction. We don’t see them right away. Just when somebody starts to use, you don’t see them then. After it’s gotten to a certain level then they are committing crime to support a habit.”
For some, recovery never happens. At least 16 times in the last two years Freed has had to sign off to end prosecution or punishment for people in the court system with known drug problems who later died of drug overdoses, according to an analysis of court records conducted by The Sentinel.
“The question you ask when that happens you look to say ‘is there something we missed?’” Freed said.
Sometimes getting locked up is not the worst-case scenario for a person who is using since it gives them time to detox and prevents an overdose for at least the time they are in jail, according to some working around substance abuse problems.
“Nobody has ever gone back and looked at why some of these 30-year-old people going on 70 lived as long as they did, because they came in here, dried out and got help,” Cumberland County Prison Deputy Warden Mike Carey said. “Even if it’s temporary, we’ve extended a lot of lives in here.”
For Freed, the system may not be perfect and it has undergone many changes in the time he has been a prosecutor, but he said it is getting better at properly handling substance abuse problems.
“I never thought I’d spend so much time trying to keep people out of jail, but I do,” he said. “... Addiction is a sickness and people’s brains are wired differently, and I’ve learned about that over time. What we have to do in the system is sift through the people who just say that to excuse their behavior and the people who truly need the help, and we spend a lot of time doing that.”