DA Singas promotes bills to tackle heroin epidemic

Nassau County DA Madeline Singas has pushed a five bill legislative package before the New York State Committee of Codes that will bring harsher penalties for heroin-related offenses. The package, which Singas says addresses “death by dealer,” is aimed at providing prosecutors and law enforcement officials with the necessary tools to cut off the drug supply at its source.

“By putting dealers on notice that a sale that leads to death means a long prison sentence; that selling heroin to a child means a long time upstate…we can make headway in this difficult fight,” Singas said.

According to a letter from the DA’s office, the bill highlights the current limitations of the law and looks to increase charges to a felony homicide if a dealer is linked to an overdose death within 24 hours of a sale. In addition, the DA is seeking harsher penalties for dealers who sell to children who die and to dealers who lace their product with a more dangerous additive.

“It’s important to know that at the DA’s discretion, when a dealer is selling for profit and has a criminal history, right now, the only mandatory prison time is for a defendant over 21 who sells drugs to a child under 17 and we think that it needs to go beyond that,” said Todd Kaminsky, a New York State assemblyman. Kaminsky has been a proponent for the legislation since its inception and is currently working on the finishing touches before it is brought before the committee. “It’s really been a slow tough slog, but it’s really been a view in the assembly that’s strengthening,” he said. Kaminsky had hoped to get the legislation to a vote before the New Year, but as of yet nothing has materialized.

While the “death by dealer” bill remains at the forefront of the legislation, all five bills would work in conjunction to lower drug related death tolls. “This year alone, heroin deaths are up 100 percent from the same time last year,” Singas said in September.

This statistic is due, in part, to the current parameters of the state’s diversion program. Diversion is granted by a judge for non-violent drug offenders and offers them the opportunity to enter rehab and meet with a counselor instead of serving a prison sentence. The second proposed bill in the legislation would prevent dealers from being granted diversion and would seek longer prison sentences like the ones laid out in the “death by dealer” stipulations.

“For a young kid that got into the wrong drugs its a nice program. It gives him a second chance on life to rehabilitate himself and he’s not held down by a record or jail time, but unfortunately like everything else, the system is corrupted by drug dealers,” said Glenn Ciccone, Nassau County Detectives Association president. Ciccone’s sentiments are also shared by Assemblyman Kaminsky who said, “I think we definitely need to take a look at the diversion program, but I don’t think that we necessarily need to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Without amendments to the current diversion program, the “death by dealer” bill will be much less effective. “Penalties on drug dealers are regressive and it just keeps our prison system full and it doesn’t help anyone,” Kaminsky said. “We need to get to the root of why this poison is going onto our streets and not always deal with the problem after someone has been addicted. We need to stop it at its source and if that means arresting the people that are dealing, then on serious occasions we need to do it.”

New York is not the first state to consider this type of legislation. Concern for the heroin problem spans the country. According to an Alternet article, there are currently at least 12 states with some form of law in place that allows dealers to be charged with murder. Pennsylvania can sentence up to 40 years in prison, Michigan can sentence life and Florida is able to pursue the death penalty. Ohio is one of the most recent to adopt this type of legislation, but overdose rates still remain high.

Officials in New York have benefited from hindsight in this instance and are taking steps in areas other than prosecution to have a greater impact on eliminating the problem. “Education and Awareness are among our best tools to battle the heroin epidemic, and it must start with students in the earlier grades, before they’re faced with making a potentially deadly choice of picking up drugs for the first time,” said Edward Mangano, Nassau County chief executive. Mangano, along with DA Singas, believe in a three-pronged approach to the problem. Education, treatment and prosecution must work in tandem if Long Island is to have any chance at loosening heroin’s grip on its communities.