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Human services chief: Bulk of county's violent crime linked to addictions

| Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, 11:30 p.m.

Nearly all violent crime in Westmoreland County is drug-related, and it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, according to the county's human services director.

The national epidemic of drug abuse should be treated as a public health issue rather than a crime problem, Dr. Dirk Matson said this week at a Central Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

In 12 years, the death rate from drug overdoses has nearly quadrupled, Matson said.

“The community needs to own the problem,” he said.

Mandatory sentencing for drug crimes has not stemmed drug abuse or prevented deaths, Matson said, but it has put financial pressure on the courts and the county jail. Though more drug addicts are being jailed, the problem has gotten worse.

An analysis of 100 deaths by the Westmoreland County Drug Overdose Task Force found that 65 percent of the victims had criminal charges pending. At some point, 58 percent had been in the county jail, and 21 percent had been in jail four or more times, he said.

In 2012, the budget for human services in Westmoreland County was nearly $171 million, while the courts spent $32 million and another $35 million on corrections, Matson said.

“I was embarrassed. I was taken off guard on how bad this was when I came to the county,” said Matson, who was hired last year after working for 35 years at Adelphoi Village in Latrobe. “It's spiraling out of control. What's the future going to hold?”

Westmoreland County set a record for overdose deaths for the fifth consecutive year in 2013, reaching 86. Officials believe the true number was at least 100, because some county residents were pronounced dead in hospitals in neighboring counties, Matson said.

This year “is off to a pretty hard sprint,” he said. “It's on a pretty good pace to break last year's record.”

Prescription drugs remain the greatest menace, despite the current focus on heroin addiction, Matson said. People who become addicted to prescribed pain medication that a physician eventually stops often turn to heroin because it's cheaper, according to experts.

Matson said many of the prescriptions are diverted to street sales for addicts.

“There is a collateral damage that is going on,” he added.

A prescription drug monitoring bill proposed last year has stalled in Harrisburg over concerns about civil liberties and privacy issues. The measure was passed by the House last November. It was referred to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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