Justice Matters: Opioid addiction and the criminal justice system

Justice Matters: Opioid addiction and the criminal justice system
Commonwealth's Attorney Bryan Porter

By Bryan Porter

One of the many unfortunate responsibilities that falls upon my office is that of receiving and reviewing the reports of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner
into every sudden death that occurs in the city.

On a weekly basis, I read reports outlining the litany of human frailty that leads to unexpected death: suicide, accident and cardiac disease. I review the reports to ensure that I see no indications of foul play, and I am always struck by the human dimension of my review. Each report represents a human life, and the stories associated with these reports sometimes are so filled with despair and anguish that they cause me to lose sleep.

Unfortunately, many of the reports reveal deaths caused by opioid addiction. Over the past calendar year, by my count I have received 15 death reports in which an Alexandria citizen died because of an opioid overdose.
The reports reveal overdose deaths caused by illegal heroin, by prescription opioids such as oxycodone, or by either of these drugs combined with the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Compounding the misery is that many of the overdose victims are under 30 years of age.

Prescription medication is easier to obtain and does not carry the same negative connotation that is attached to illegal drugs. But make no mistake, oxycodone is for all intents and purposes synthetic heroin, and in sufficient quantities is just as deadly. Opioid abuse constitutes a clear public safety crisis in our region, and Alexandria is not untouched by the problem.

As Alexandria’s prosecutor, my office has a role in addressing this crisis. My philosophy is simple: we must strive to assist people who are suffering from opioid addiction and provide a helping hand instead of a heavy one. People charged with possession of opioids for personal use do not need lengthy prison sentences. Instead, they need treatment programs and a caring probation officer to help keep them on the right path.

I am excited that a host of city agencies are working together to establish a drug court program here in our courthouse. The commitment from other agencies is proof positive that Alexandria is a caring community, and I am hopeful that collectively we will be able to establish a drug court program during the upcoming calendar year.

A drug court program combines intensive treatment with immediate sanctions for non-compliance. The aim is not incarceration, but instead treating the offender’s addiction.

Importantly, a drug court program is self-selecting: offenders must agree to participate and must personally commit to the program’s mandates. This is important: while the program can aid an offender’s recovery, a commitment to successfully completing drug treatment cannot be imposed by a court. Instead, that commitment must come from within.

On the other side of the equation are those who earn their profits through the addiction of others. Given the boom in use, illegal heroin sales are an easy way for criminals to make substantial profits. And where illegal money is being made, violence is sure to follow. Drug dealing is a cash business and, since drug dealers cannot call the police for assistance, those fearing robbery are quick to arm themselves with guns.

Thus, in addition to simply preying on the misery of others, drug dealers bring violence with them.

My office has used prosecutorial innovation to dismantle complex drug distribution networks. Working with law-enforcement partners such as the Alexandria Police, the Virginia State Police and the Office of the Attorney General’s Office, we have brought several state Racketeering and Conspiracy cases against complex drug trafficking organizations. Our indictments have led to the arrest of high-level dealers from other states such as Maryland and New York.

This two-pronged approach, preferring leniency and treatment for those addicted to opioids while dismantling complex drug trafficking organizations, is an important part of the response to the opioid crisis. However, law enforcement is not the only — nor even the most important — part of this response. This is a true public health crisis, and therefore the combined resources of both public and private organizations, along with concomitant funding, must be brought to bear.

Bryan Porter is the commonwealth’s attorney for the City of Alexandria.