Families Affected By Drug Deaths Help Push For Lesser Sentencing

By Paul Gaita 04/01/14

With the help of families grieving over the loss of loved ones, cities and states across the nation are moving more toward effective harm reduction methods to stem the tide of addiction.

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Good Samaritan laws are becoming more
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A report from the Washington Post outlines the seismic shift in attitudes towards sentencing for drug offenses by lawmakers and courts, especially at the state and local levels.

Draconian punishments for low-level drug offenses like mandatory minimum sentences that once personified the U.S government’s stance on “the War on Drugs” are giving way to efforts like Good Samaritan laws, which provide limited immunity from prosecution for witnesses who call 911 in cases of drug overdoses, even if they are using drugs themselves. The laws, which have been enacted in 17 states and the District of Columbia, are part of a growing change in the way the U.S. government and law enforcement officials view the nation’s drug policies.

Programs such as Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, which allows police to send individuals arrested on charges of buying or selling small amounts of drugs to treatment centers rather than serve jail time, or Hawaii’s HOPE Probation, which seeks to reduce recidivism by levying strict sanctions against repeat parole violators, have generated bipartisan support from lawmakers and the public alike for addressing the national drug epidemic as a health issue and not a legal or moral problem. Most significantly, they have yielded positive results: a U.S. Department of Justice report noted that HOPE probationers were 55 percent less likely to be arrested in a new crime than those not participating in the program.

As the Post report noted, many of these programs are the result of grassroots campaigns by individuals and families who have lost loved ones to the rising tide of heroin and prescription drug abuse sweeping parts of the nation. The Good Samaritan law was due largely to the tireless work of Patty DiRenzo, a Blackwood, N.J. resident who lost her son, Salvatore Marchese, to a heroin overdose in 2010. When police revealed to her that Marchese had not been alone when he died, she began lobbying Senator Joe Vitale (D-19) to pass a proposed Good Samaritan law.

The measure was signed into law in 2013, a move Vitale credits largely to DiRenzo’s pressure, which he described as “relentless, in a good way. This wasn’t some high-paid lobbyist telling us what he was told to say. This was real life, real experience, unfiltered, and it made a difference.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.