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Pennsylvania governor urges rehab over prison to quell opioid epidemic

Tony Raap
| Thursday, May 5, 2016, 5:45 p.m.
Governor Tom Wolf, left, holds a round table discussion on Pennsylvania's opioid crisis in Homewood on Thursday, May 5, 2016.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Governor Tom Wolf, left, holds a round table discussion on Pennsylvania's opioid crisis in Homewood on Thursday, May 5, 2016.
Kion Donald, 8, left, of Homewood, dozes as Governor Tom Wolf, right, holds a round table discussion on Pennsylvania's opioid crisis in Homewood on Thursday, May 5, 2016. Donald attended the event with his father, Torio.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Kion Donald, 8, left, of Homewood, dozes as Governor Tom Wolf, right, holds a round table discussion on Pennsylvania's opioid crisis in Homewood on Thursday, May 5, 2016. Donald attended the event with his father, Torio.

The criminal justice system should ease punishments for nonviolent drug offenders as part of a broader effort to curb Pennsylvania's opioid epidemic, Gov. Tom Wolf said Thursday during a roundtable discussion with elected officials and health care professionals in Pittsburgh.

“We can't arrest our way to success,” Wolf said. “We have to recognize that some people in the prison system shouldn't be in the prison system.”

About 25 lawmakers, anti-drug advocates and members of law enforcement attended the hourlong session at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Homewood.

Wolf said the purpose of the gathering was to investigate the causes of the state's opioid problem and discuss how to stop it. He spent most of the session listening to others in the room.

The discussion was held at a time when overdose deaths are rising and opioid abuse is spiking. Allegheny County had 393 fatal overdoses in 2015, surpassing the record set one year earlier, when there were 307.

Many, including President Obama, are talking about treatment instead of incarceration. The Obama administration on Thursday commuted the sentences of 58 inmates serving time in federal prisons for nonviolent drug offenses, primarily for possession or distribution of cocaine, crack and methamphetamine. Eighteen of them were serving life sentences.

“Let's not think that by giving more time to drug dealers they're going to stop selling drugs,” said state Rep. Ed Gainey, a Democrat whose district includes Homewood.

“It doesn't matter how much time you give them. If they feel this is the only way that they have to eat, then your time doesn't scare them,” Gainey said.

The rise in heroin addiction has been driven by prescription drug abuse. OxyContin and other painkillers often serve as a gateway drug.

“This is not a problem that is going away,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said. “It's not just a city problem. It's not just an Allegheny County problem. I can tell you it's a Western Pennsylvania problem that we are dealing with.”

Federal authorities are focusing more time and resources on the opioid epidemic. David Hickton, the U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania, convened a working group in 2014 to study the issue.

“It's been a big push in our office to view this problem as the confluence of a public health crisis and a law enforcement problem,” said Stephen Kaufman, an assistant U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh.

Prosecutors will continue to go after large heroin-trafficking operations, but the U.S. Attorney's Office has adopted a different mindset when it comes to users.

“We look at those people as victims more than perpetrators,” Kaufman said.

“We're not going to make our success as an office by how many people we indict or how many people go to jail,” he said.

He said the measuring stick federal prosecutors use is “do we reduce overdose deaths in Western Pennsylvania? That's really what we're looking at doing.”

The Associated Press contributed. Tony Raap is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7827 or traap@tribweb.com.

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