This lengthy and worthwhile article from the Belleville News-Democrat (Illinois) examines drug-induced deaths and the question of who should be punished for them -- and for how long.
Under federal law, selling drugs to someone who later dies from using them has a mandatory minimum of 20 years, and the sentence can go all the way up to life. State sentences differ across the country, and Illinois doesn't appear to have a mandatory minimum for this kind of crime. But with or without a mandatory minimum, prosecutors, judges, and jurors grow nervous about the punishment when the drug provider and the drug user/victim are friends or co-drug users. The article offers a federal case as an example:
Andrea R. Fields, 29, of Belleville, was charged with killing David L. Roth, 56, because she injected him with heroin. A federal jury recently acquitted her.
According to police and prosecutors, Roth drove Fields and her boyfriend, Scott Weldon, to East St. Louis to get heroin. Weldon bought it. Fields split the drug into thirds and injected herself and the men.
Three months after Roth died, and hundreds of hours into the investigation, Fields and Weldon were indicted on the federal felony charge of distributing heroin resulting in a death.
Jurors were not convinced she distributed a controlled substance.
The jury asked the judge, "Does the injection of a controlled substance constitute 'distribution?'"
The judge said that was for them to decide. Fields was cleared within hours.
Field's public defender, Neal Connors, said he tried the case because the distribution part of the law is unclear.
Weldon pleaded guilty and admitted he purchased the drugs. He was sentenced Friday to eight years in prison, as requested by the U.S. Attorney's Office, instead of the mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years.
Jim Porter, of the U.S. Attorney's Office, stated in an email, "Our job is to not only prosecute, but to do justice. Given all the facts in this case, we believe that the sentence was a just one."Perhaps so, but it also raises questions of what the best solution is for the offender, the community, and taxpayers. If both victim and defendant have drug abuse problems, shouldn't treatment or a drug court at least be an option? At the federal level, it's not an option at all. In cash-starved states, it may not be an option for much longer:
At the same time overdoses are rising, [Illinois] announced millions of dollars in cuts to substance treatment funding, costing some treatment centers 30 percent of their funds, said Sara Howe, chief executive officer of the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association, a lobbying group for treatment centers across the state.
The state cuts will probably be coupled with federal cuts this fall, Howe said. The cuts are being made even though it is much more cost-effective to treat addicts instead of putting them in prison, she said.
"It is really horribly concerning," she said.A death from a drug transaction is a horrible, tragic outcome. But even for this most serious of consequences, the punishments must be fair. The sentences must fit offenders, and they should be cost-effective, protect the public, and rehabilitate offenders, too.