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WI drug overdose death puts deferred prosecution program in question

Last week, we wrote that the rise in drug deaths is prompting Wisconsin prosecutors to crack down on those who supply drugs to victims who later die by fatal overdose. A recent article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel provides an important follow-up to that post.

It discusses the case of a Wisconsin man who might now spend up to 50 years behind bars for his alleged role in the heroin overdose death of a 26-year-old acquaintance. What makes this case controversial is that at the time of the woman's death, the defendant was participating in a deferred prosecution program for lesser drug offenses and was therefore out of police custody.

Milwaukee County (like many others in Wisconsin) offers a program to divert certain drug offenders into treatment programs in exchange for things such as lighter sentences and dismissal of lesser charges. Programs like this are a recognition of the fact that many drug crimes stem from drug addiction, which is a disease. Treatment often proves to be more effective than simple criminal prosecution, and is generally more cost-effective for overburdened court systems.

According to the article, the 35-year-old defendant was participating in the deferred prosecution program and was therefore not in jail or prison on the night of the woman's fatal overdose. He instead agreed to treatment, supervision and regular drug testing.

On the night of the woman's death, the defendant allegedly played some role in obtaining heroin and helping the woman shoot up. The exact actions he took are a matter of dispute. Nonetheless, the victim died within about 24 hours from a fatal overdose.

The victim's family is now furious with prosecutors, believing that the deferred prosecution program is to blame. The woman's grandfather said: "If [the defendant] would have been in jail the way he should have been, this would not have happened. She'd still be here."

But given the rise in overdose deaths in recent years, that may not be true. If the defendant had not played some role in helping the woman obtain and use heroin, chances are that someone else would have. Even those close to the woman suspected that her addiction and life had been spiraling out of control prior to her death.

Cases like this are heartbreaking, to be sure. But they speak more to the insidious nature of addiction than to any failure of the criminal justice system.


Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Overdose death highlights deferred prosecutions in Milwaukee County," Daniel Bice, Sept. 21, 2013

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