As overdose deaths rise, so too has homicide prosecutions for people accused of delivering drugs that led to those deaths.
In Pennsylvania, a person can be charged with the first degree felony of drug delivery resulting in death if they provide drugs to someone and that person dies from using those drugs. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison.
Cases of drug delivery resulting in death have risen more than 1,200 percent since 2013, according to the Administrative Offices of Pennsylvania Courts.
Increased numbers of prosecutions can also result in substantial increases in costs to the county.
Cumberland County District Attorney Skip Ebert said he is looking at a protocol that would call for autopsies for certain overdose victims.
That concerned Cumberland County Coroner Charley Hall who said in an email provided to the Cumberland County commissioners Tuesday that such a move would potentially increase his budget by more than $200,000 a year.
An autopsy is not performed on most overdose victims, according to Hall. In 2017, an autopsy was performed on less than 20 percent of the 84 overdose victims, Hall said.
An additional $200,000 a year expenditure would “escalate the cost to my office substantially,” Hall wrote.
If that policy was put into place, Hall’s office would have already paid for as many autopsies of overdose victims so far this year as it did in all of 2017, according to information in Hall’s email.
Ebert said the cost wouldn’t be nearly as high because it wouldn’t be an “absolute” call for an autopsy for every victim. He said that, for example, a person who is found days after death and who had no communication with anyone would not likely be a case they would pursue.
He said his office is looking at forming a protocol on when to call for an autopsy, which could include if there was telephone traffic or baggies with designs that are identified to a known source.
Hall noted, however, that his budget for toxicology testing alone is on the rise. Roughly $41,000 was budgeted for toxicology testing in 2016, Hall wrote. More than $60,000 was needed in 2016, however, and nearly $90,000 was spent in 2017, he wrote.
The cost of toxicology testing would likely be borne regardless of prosecutions and would rise and fall as the number of overdose deaths rise and fall.
Increasing the number of autopsies would be a new cost driven by efforts to charge more overdose cases as criminal homicides.
Much of the surge in overdose-induced homicide charges occurred last year, according to AOPC data. Roughly as many cases of drug delivery resulting in death were filed in 2017 alone than were filed in the four previous years combined, AOPC reported.
Charges have not been applied evenly across the state, and a handful of counties appear to be driving the rise. Midstate counties played an outsized role in the surge in cases in 2017.
Nearly as many cases of drug delivery resulting in death were filed in Franklin, Dauphin, York and Lancaster counties combined in 2017 than were filed in the entire state in 2016, according to the AOPC report.
The 10 counties with the highest number of drug delivery resulting in death cases in 2017 accounted for nearly 72 percent of all cases filed that year, despite making up roughly 30 percent of the state’s population.
The results were flipped for the remaining 57 counties, which includes Cumberland County, though the county saw the sixth highest number of cases total over four years. These 57 counties account for 70 percent of the state’s population but less than 30 percent of the drug delivery resulting death cases last year.
A bit starker, the filings in 2017 by those 10 counties equated to more than one third of all drug delivery resulting in death cases filed in the entire state since 2013, according to the AOPC.
More than a quarter of counties in Pennsylvania did not file any cases between 2013 and 2017.
While the charge has become popular for some law enforcement and prosecutors, treating overdose deaths as a criminal homicide has drawn criticism.
The Drug Policy Alliance, an organization aimed at promoting policies that reduce harm and reform drug laws, has raised alarms that these kinds of charges can discourage people from seeking help when a loved one or friend is in the midst of an overdose, thus resulting in more deaths.
In a 2017 report on overdose-induced homicide laws, the organization said that a man in Illinois was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison for providing heroin to a friend who later died of an overdose. The man failed to seek life-saving help by calling 911 out of fear of being prosecuted for a drug offense, the alliance reported.
As of the end of February, one person has been charged with the crime in Cumberland County this year, two have been charged in Franklin County, and none have been charged in Perry County, according to court records.
Fourteen people have died this year in Cumberland County from a drug overdose, according to Hall.