The tragic plight of Victoria Herr illustrates why drug rehabilitation is a better alternative than imprisonment. In 2015, police entered into Herr’s apartment in search of her boyfriend. When police found drugs, they arrested and booked Herr into a Pennsylvania county correctional facility. Herr admitted to prison staff members that she used 10 bags of heroin a day and feared her withdrawal process would be tough. It was worse.  

Herr had severe bouts of diarrhea and vomiting over four days. While she was given water, Ensure, and adult diapers, they were not enough. She eventually collapsed of apparent dehydration, lost consciousness, and went into cardiac arrest. Herr died days later. She was 18.

In 2018, the county that runs the correctional facility was ordered to pay Herr’s family $4.75 million in a wrongful death claim. 

Said an attorney representing the woman’s family: 

“Tori Herr should not have died in the Lebanon County Correctional Facility,” he said. “She had a serious condition, which could have easily been treated.” 

The withdrawal symptoms from heroin use are typically not life-threatening. If Herr had the opportunity to enter into a professional drug treatment program, she would have received the kind of care that would have safely alleviated those distressing symptoms.  

Her story is proof that people who are addicted to drugs should receive treatment instead of imprisonment. It also illustrates that the people saddled with opioid and other substance addictions deserve medical and social remedies rather than punitive ones, as long as they have not engaged in violent crime, theft, or endangered the lives of others. 

How Drug Possession Became Criminalized

At one time, drug addiction was viewed as a social problem rather than a criminal one. In the middle of the 20th century, few people got imprisoned and, according to NPR, the ones who did, served short sentences. 

Then, in May 1973, a piece of influential legislation, championed by then Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, passed in New York. These statutes would bear the indelible imprint of the state’s top elected office holder. 

Dubbed the Rockefeller Drug Laws, this legislation stipulated that people who sold 2 ounces of certain drugs like cocaine or heroin or possessed 4 ounces of the same drugs would be subject to a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 15 years to life and a maximum of 25 years to life.

At the time, the Rockefeller laws earned New York the distinction of having the toughest drug penalties in the country. What’s more, they were enacted at a time when heroin addiction was rampant in the streets of New York City, and the homicide rate was four times that of 2013. 

When district attorneys pondered how they would implement the new statutes, they could not fathom their far-reaching effects.

“I don’t remember thinking or believing, nor did my colleague [district attorneys] at the time, that this was going to somehow revolutionize and change everything,” one former prosecutor told NPR.

Then the new laws proved to be revolutionary. They set the standard for other states that sought to draft “tough on crime” legislation. 

The effect was startling. The country’s prison population skyrocketed from 330,000 in 1973 to 2.3 million, which was largely due to tougher drug sentencing nationwide. 

It would take 36 years before the mandatory minimum provisions under the Rockefeller Drug Laws were dismantled in 2009. This granted judges the authority to send first-time nonviolent offenders to treatment instead of prison.

Still, the U.S. locks up more people than any other nation in the world. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the rate of incarceration is at 698 per 100,000 residents in America, which is why 2.3 million are confined nationwide. Also, almost half a million people are still incarcerated for drug offenses. Also, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, “nonviolent drug convictions remain a defining feature of the federal prison system.” 

Police still make over 1 million drug possession arrests each year, and many of these arrests do lead to prison sentences. Drug arrests continue to give residents of over-policed communities criminal records, hurting their employment prospects and increasing the likelihood of longer sentences for any future offenses.

When Prison is Appropriate

There is a strong correlation between substance use and crime, outside of the actual possession of illegal drugs. This is particularly evident when the use of drugs or alcohol directly endangers the lives of others. 

People driving under the influence of alcohol is an issue as more than 1 million are arrested every year for this offense. 

Many people get behind the wheel while under the influence of certain prescription drugs like opioids and benzodiazepines. These sedative medications expressly warn against the operation of heavy machinery while under their influence. 

Outside of possession, there are three types of crimes associated with drugs that warrant legal consequences: people who ingest drugs and commit crimes while under their influence; people who resort to theft to fund a drug habit; and people who produce, manufacture, transport, or sell drugs or commit violence related to drug production or sales.

Imprisonment is a reasonable penalty for any of those offenses. 

The Death of a Basketball Star and Drug-Induced Homicide

In the realm of sports, Len Bias is perhaps the best example of an all-too-common trope: the budding star who suffers a tragic fall. 

Basketball coaches with substantial reputations compared him to Michael Jordan, the sport’s greatest star. In fact, the venerable Mike Krzyzewski, the longtime head coach of Duke University Basketball, once said that Bias had the ability to “invent ways to score and there was nothing you could do about it.” 

The National Basketball Association’s Boston Celtics selected Bias as the No. 2 pick in the 1986 draft with the idea that he become the franchise’s next star once Larry Bird retired. Two days after Bias was drafted, he died from a cocaine overdose. 

Bias’ death made national headlines and led to the first piece of legislation that penalized drug dealers for supplying a substance that resulted in someone’s death. 

Former President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. A component of that bill called for life imprisonment for a person who distributed drugs that resulted in the death of someone. Those provisions would come to be known as “The Len Bias Law.”

With the deadly opioid epidemic resulting in numerous fatal overdoses, states have begun to enact their own version of this influential piece of legislation. These are called “drug-induced homicide” laws.

The Opioid Crisis and Imprisonment

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that between 1999 and 2017, nearly 400,000 people have died from an overdose involving any opioid, including prescription drugs like oxycodone and illicit drugs like heroin. At more than 20 years old, the opioid epidemic is considered the worst drug crisis in American history.

More states are considering drug-induced homicide laws in the wake of the epidemic’s sheer carnage. As of now, 20 of them have a version of these laws, which carry the same penalties as murder and manslaughter. 

Nevertheless, there is a strong argument to be made that imprisonment is appropriate in cases where the use or sale of drugs has endangered or killed others.

Why Professional Drug Treatment is the Best Solution

Sending a non-violent drug offender to jail rather than treatment does not make fiscal sense. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that drug abuse treatment is cost-effective in that it not only reduces drug use but that it also brings about health care savings. Yet, NIDA argues that treatment offers an even greater benefit:  “The largest economic benefit of treatment is seen in avoided costs of crime (incarceration and victimization costs).” 

How Professional Treatment Can Help You

Professional treatment can offer someone struggling with an addiction a continuum of care that accomplishes the following: removes the addictive substance from the body, treats the withdrawal symptoms safely and effectively, and provides evidence-based counseling and therapy designed to uncover the underlying cause of the person’s substance abuse issue.

This kind of treatment could have undoubtedly saved the life of Victoria Herr. 

If you or a loved one is in the throes of addiction, a professional recovery program can save yours.

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