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Drug Overdose Homicide Charges on the Rise in Atlantic County

Prosecutors in Atlantic County, New Jersey, are more frequently charging those who played a role in the death of an individual who passed due to drug overdose with murder. That is, if someone sold a substance to someone who ultimately died after using it, they could be charged with murder. If someone hands out a couple of their own pills and someone dies after taking them, they could be charged with murder. If someone manufactured a drug that can be traced to a drug overdose, they could end up in front of a judge pleading their case against murder charges.

This is in response to drug overdose deaths in New Jersey. Someone convicted of murder in New Jersey could get anywhere from 10 to 20 years in prison. To supporters of the new practice, the severity of the penalty is what makes it work. The goal is that these charges will disrupt current drug networks that are actively manufacturing and distributing substances across the country and deter others from getting involved in the drug trade or sharing their medications with anyone. Ultimately, fewer drug overdose deaths in Atlantic County and across New Jersey are the desired results.

Damon Tyner is a prosecutor in Atlantic County. He says:

“It’s also very important because it gives the victims’ families an opportunity to get some closure. They have the opportunity to hold someone accountable for that [loss].”

Those who are prosecuted for murder for their role in an overdose death in Atlantic County are not always convicted of murder. Since the end of last summer, 13 people have been charged with homicide that was caused by drugs, but only one person was convicted. Though this law has been on the books since 1988, up until 2016, there were only 16 drug overdose-related homicide cases in total, so 13 cases in less than a year is a huge increase.

Though both Ocean County and Camden County have higher rates of drug overdose deaths, the rates of drug overdose fatalities doubled in Atlantic County in 2016.

Will increasing the severity of legal repercussions for involvement in loss of life due to drugs actually have a positive impact on the problem, or will it just add to the problems caused by overcrowded jails and overburdened court systems that were caused by the War on Drugs in the 1980s?

Do Drug-Induced Homicide Charges Deter Drug Dealers?

In the past, hefty criminal charges were laid on anyone who had any amount of illicit substances on them. If they had a large amount on hand that could be interpreted as “possession with intent to sell,” then the penalty (e.g., jail time and fines) got steeper. If there was a large amount of a particularly deadly substance, or if it was objectively clear that the individual was a drug trafficker and transporting large amounts of an illicit substance, then the penalty grew steeper still. However, in most cases, only repeat, high-level drug traffickers received sentences of 10–20 years, which makes the renewed utilization of this legal strategy a hot topic of debate.

closeup of the open hand of a young caucasian man with some different pills in it

Many say that it is an unjust punishment in the cases of a friend or family member sharing a prescription with a loved one who ultimately dies of overdose on the pills. Others say it is absolutely fitting for someone who has likely contributed to multiple overdose deaths or who can be traced to a deadly batch of heroin or another laced street substance that took the lives of many.

Still others point out that there is no research under any circumstance to support the notion that pursuing a decade or more in prison to punish someone who contributed to a drug overdose death is effective in deterring future deaths or lowering rates of addiction or drug abuse in the area. Rather, the concern is that those who are living with addiction and share drugs with someone else will only be further blocked from the treatment they need to heal if they are incarcerated when a friend, loved one, or customer dies.

Do you think that Atlantic County is responding to the rising crisis of overdose deaths appropriately, or is connecting alleged offenders with treatment the better choice?

About The Contributor
The editorial staff of Sunrise House is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands of pa...