Criminal justice response topic of forum

EMMA GOSALVEZ/THE EXPRESS Daryl Bloom, third from left, Assistant United States Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, discussed what his office has been doing to fight the opioid and heroin epidemic, which has included working with local officials and the state Legislature and targeting major drug traffickers. Also on the panel were, from left: Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks-Miller, Scott Sayers of the Centre County coroner’s office, Patrick Trainor of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Juan Grajales of the FBI, and Sean Noel of the FBI. The woman behind the podium is Ferguson Township Police Chief Diane Conrad.

BELLEFONTE — Several law enforcement officials, from local to federal, came together Tuesday night at Mount Nittany Medical Center to discuss the criminal justice system’s response to a problem that has become an epidemic across Pennsylvania: heroin and opioid abuse.

This was part of the fourth and final session of a series of town hall meetings sponsored by the Centre County Heroin Opioid Prevention Education, or HOPE, Initiative, which were created to address the heroin and opioid crisis in Centre County.

For 12 years, Diane Conrad has served as Ferguson Township’s police chief, and she said that many drug investigations have revealed that the source of illegal drugs is not in the county, but from areas surrounding the county, which falls outside of local police jurisdiction. This hurdle has created the need for a close, working relationship with other law enforcement officials.

“Every level of the criminal justice system understands the devastating impact this epidemic is having on our families and communities,” Conrad said. “We also understand that this is both a criminal justice as well as public health problem, and we’re working together to mitigate it on all possible fronts, as appropriate, and as is our mission.”

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks-Miller said her office has eight attorneys who handle approximately 3,000 matters each year and approximately a quarter of those matters are related to drugs.

Sixteen people in Centre County have died from heroin and opioid overdoses so far this year, according to Centre County Coroner Scott Sayers. Looking at projections, that number of overdose deaths could very well increase to 21 for the year. Sayers added that the ages of those who died from drug overdose ranged from early 20s to late 60s, with a mix of both males and females of varying marital statuses.

Since 2010, heroin and opioid deaths have increased by 248 percent, a statistic pointed out by Assistant United States Attorney Daryl Bloom. There are more people in the United States who die from drug overdoses than people who die from car accidents.

Bloom, who works for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, said his office is working with local and state law enforcement, targeting major drug traffickers, and charging the most serious offenders.

Last year in the state, there were 3,383 overdose deaths, 81 percent of which involved an opiate, said Patrick Trainor of the Drug Enforcement Administration, also known as DEA. The DEA tracks the overdose status across the state and across the country and is responsible for many drug seizures.

“The biggest concern for us are rogue doctors,” Trainor said. “We arrested about 67 doctors in Pennsylvania last year.”

Rogue doctors are those who overprescribe narcotics, and most heroin users the DEA encounters started by abusing prescription opiates, most of which were from rogue doctors, Trainor said.

With the Federal Bureau of Investigation, several heroin initiatives are in place, including the Philadelphia Safe Streets Task Force, which is made up of local, state and federal law enforcement officers. According to Special Agent Sean Noel, the task force performs investigations of drug trafficking operations at not only the neighborhood level, but also at the national and international levels.

Over the past three years, FBI Philadelphia task force investigations have identified major sources of heroin supply in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Baltimore, and New York, Noel said. These investigations have led to the prosecution of more than 50 individuals from several counties in Pennsylvania and from areas of New Jersey and New York.

At the state level, state police have seized more than $19 million street value worth of illegal drugs within the first quarter of 2016, according to Trooper David McGarvey of the Pennsylvania State Police. In the second quarter of 2016, more than 21 pounds of cocaine and more than 17 pounds of heroin were seized, totaling approximately $6.9 million. These seizures have been thanks to officer training through a state police program called Safe Highways Initiative for Effective Law Enforcement Detection.

Another way the Pennsylvania State Police is working to combat the crisis is increasing officer access to Naloxone, which is a drug used in an emergency to block or reverse the effects of opioid medication.

Centre County Judge Pamela Ruest discussed the county’s plans for a drug court. Ruest said the court, which is a problem-solving one that takes a public health approach, is still in the initial planning phases and is need of funding.

According to Ruest, the drug court will help reduce relapses and will help former drug users become useful members of society. It will be a very intensive program that could last between 18 to 24 months.

Ruest said, “It’s not a cure-all for all of those who are addicted; we can’t help everyone, but at least it’s a start, and we’re looking forward to at least doing that.”