Why Are More Heroin Addicts Being Charged With Homicide?

With overdose deaths on the rise, some drug users are winding up in prison instead of treatment.
(Photo: John Rensten/Getty Images)
Aug 30, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

When Peter Kucinski died of a heroin overdose in 2014, he wasn’t using by himself. He sent his girlfriend, Amy Shemberger, to get the drugs.

Shemberger scored and split the heroin with Benjamin Camunias, who dropped Shemberger off at her boyfriend’s house.

Kucinski died after the couple got high together in their town of Lockport, Illinois—and 30-year-old Shemberger and Camunias both wound up being charged with and convicted of drug-induced homicide. Shemberger was sentenced to seven years behind bars, and Camunias, who physically purchased the drugs, is serving 12 years.

The two were charged under an Illinois law that has been on the books since 1989. The law carries a punishment of six to 30 years in prison for providing a drug that results in a deadly overdose. More than 20 states have similar statutes, with punishments ranging from a few years in prison to the death penalty.

As the opioid crisis has grown, prosecutors have increasingly turned to these laws to punish drug sellers and traffickers and to deter overdose deaths. But as in Shemberger’s case, critics say those who go to prison are often either friends or family members of drug users, or low-level sellers.

“When you’ve got two or more consenting people sharing drugs and there’s an accidental overdose, it’s just about luck,” said Kathleen Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy. “The person who gets charged with drug-induced homicide is very much like the person who died.”

Kane-Willis, a former heroin addict, is pushing for reform of the Illinois law. While its original intent was to take down traffickers, she says it’s not being applied that way. Yet the shocking rise of overdose deaths across the country in the last few years has spurred the law enforcement community to revive these dormant laws in an effort to stem the death toll.

In 2014, the year for which the most current data is available, 10,574 overdose deaths were tied to heroin use, and 18,893 deaths were related to prescription pain relievers. Heroin overdose deaths increased by 45 percent between 2006 and 2010, and the numbers have continued to climb, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When those numbers spiked in New Jersey in 2014, Ocean County began dispatching a homicide detective to the scene of every overdose death alongside narcotics detectives. Ocean County prosecutor Joseph Coronato, who did not respond to a request for comment from TakePart, told CNN at the time that he wanted “to send a signal loud and clear” to heroin dealers that their business would not be tolerated.

That signal is often lost on the people charged under these kinds of homicide laws, many of whom are struggling with addiction.

“It’s not clear that harsher sentences are deterring anybody from using drugs, especially in a world that’s driven by addiction,” said Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a D.C.-based sentencing reform organization.

As prison populations in the U.S. have grown to an unsustainable size, the criminal justice reform movement has largely found traction in efforts to scale back laws that target nonviolent drug offenders. In April 2016, the National District Attorneys Association expressed support for a bill that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for repeat nonviolent drug offenders. Though the legislation remains dormant in Congress, its existence, and support from conservative allies and law enforcement, is indicative of the shift away from harsh sentences for drug offenders.

The heroin epidemic in particular has sparked a broader conversation about treating addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice crisis. Yet the mounting use of drug-induced-homicide laws veers strongly in the opposite direction.

“It’s strange to use old-school deterrence theory given that this is clearly a public health crisis,” said Ring. “That’s not how addiction works. It seems like we’re going backwards.”

The laws may also discourage heroin users from calling 911. Thirty-two states have some form of Good Samaritan law, intended to protect drug users who attempt to assist fellow users during overdoses from criminal prosecution. But the majority of states with drug-induced-homicide laws do not provide immunity to users or sellers on the scene of an overdose even if they live in a Good Samaritan state.

“I think about the time my boyfriend overdosed in 1989 and I called 911,” said Kane-Willis. “Luckily he came to, but in this day, I could have been charged. This has to stop.”