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Saving lives should be priority, not making drug arrests

Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim.
Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim says the purpose of Illinois' Good Samaritan law granting immunity to people who call 911 after a drug overdose is to save lives. (AP Photo/Daily Herald, Paul Valade)

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Prosecutors across the nation have begun charging people with murder if they shared illegal drugs such as heroin with a friend or family member who died as a result.

Now there’s a push to do the same in Illinois but, like the failed war on drugs, it risks making a bad situation worse. The more people are hesitant to call 911 in an overdose situation because they fear arrest, the more people will die.

Illinois would be wise to stick with its current policy, which is to target actual drug dealers in cases when somebody dies of an overdose — but not the other addicts in the room. That’s the policy, shaped by real-world police experience, first supported by hard-nosed county prosecutors and approve by the Illinois General Assembly in 2012. They did not want that emergency phone to stop ringing.

“If someone overdoses, we want to encourage the survivors to call 911,” Lake County State’s Attorney Michael G. Nerheim told us.

Police in Lake County now carry naloxone, which can save the life of someone who has overdosed. Since December 2014, first responders have saved 75 lives in Lake County — without making any arrests on the scene, Nerheim said.

Since the 1980s, Illinois has criminalized drug-induced deaths as homicide. But to ensure the law does not result in deadly unintended consequences, the General Assembly in 2012 added a Good Samaritan law, which grants a level of immunity to people who dial 911 if they are with someone who needs medical help because of drug use.

Illinois was the fifth state to enact such a law, designed to encourage people to summon help without fear they’ll be arrested.

For years in Illinois, it was extremely rare for anybody — professional drug dealer or fellow sad addict — to be charged with murder for a drug-induced death, but times have changed. In 2003, nobody was sent to prison on that charge. But in 2015, 13 people were.

In a Sunday “Watchdogs” report, Sun-Times reporter Mick Dumke and Frank Main cite several cases that, to our eyes, likely warranted the charge of murder.

There is, for example, Corey Crump, now 35, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for supplying fentanyl-laced heroin to the 17-year-old son of a Franklin Park deputy police chief. The teenager, Joseph Krecker, died in 2006. And there is Eric White, now 53, who was sentenced to seven years for selling a California man eight bags of heroin, via an intermediary. The 35-year-old buyer died in a downtown Chicago hotel room in 2005.

But Dumke and Main also tell the story of Adrianna Diana, 20, who shot up heroin with a friend, Christopher Houdek. Diana’s aunt called 911 the next day when Houdek was found unresponsive in her Carol Stream apartment. DuPage County prosecutors charged Diana, along with two drug dealers, with murder. While free on bail, Diana later overdosed on heroin and died as well.

There’s an honest question, without being soft on crime, as to whether Diana should have been treated like a killer or an addict.

But so goes the trend. In Louisiana, according to the Washington Post, a man got a life sentence after the heroin he gave his fiancee to celebrate her 19th birthday killed her. Prosecutors in New Jersey, Tennessee, New Hampshire and West Virginia have brought murder charges in similar cases. Lawmakers in New York, Ohio and Virginia are pushing bills to allow murder charges after fatal drug overdoses.

In Illinois, most of the charges have been in the collar counties, but now the Chicago Police Department is considering expanding charges for drug-induced homicides.

Kathleen Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University, said some prosecutors Downstate have used a loophole in the Good Samaritan law to charge people with aggravated battery after a drug death.

Heroin is a growing national scourge. It has been called an epidemic. There’s a good argument that prosecutors in the past, even in Illinois, have not charged serious drug dealers with murder as often as they should. But it would be the height of folly to destroy the credibility of Illinois’ Good Samaritan law in the process.

We want those 911 calls.

As Nerheim said, “We have a much better chance to save their lives if we can be there within minutes.”

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