Public Health Experts: Bill Mandating Life Sentences For Drug Dealers Won't Save Lives

Apr 2, 2018

Public health experts are opposing a bill introduced at the request of state Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin to mandate life sentences for drug dealers in fatal overdose cases.

Rhode Island law currently mandates life sentences only for those convicted in the sale, delivery of distribution of controlled substances that result in the overdose death of a minor.

The bill (H-7715) “Kristen’s Law” -- introduced by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello at the attorney general’s request  – is named after a 29-year-old Cranston woman who died of an overdose of heroin laced with fentanyl in 2014. Her dealer pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and received a prison sentence of 40 years with 20 years to serve.

Public health experts who serve on Governor Raimondo’s drug overdose-prevention task force say the bill will imprison more “low level drug dealers” and do nothing to reduce overdose deaths.

“This law, if enacted, will lead to the incarceration of countless low level dealers – people caught up by circumstances or, most often addicted themselves, not the people who are really calling the shots,’’ Dr. Josiah “Jody” Rich, co-director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, said in a letter to the House Judiciary Committee. “Why should we spend our state tax dollars on something that is not going to be effective?”

Michelle McKenzie, a public health researcher at Brown University’s medical who studies opioid overdose prevention, said a letter to the committee that studies have repeatedly shown that “harsher drug penalties do NOT have an evidence base” in preventing drug use. 

A recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts reaffirms earlier studies that say there is no correlation between longer prison terms for drug offenders and drug overdoses.

McKenzie also suggested the mandatory sentencing bill could undermine the Good Samaritan Law by discouraging drug users from calling 9-1-1 in the case of an overdose.  The 2016 law protects from criminal prosecution people who seek help someone who is overdosing.

(More two-dozen people signed up to testify at the March 27 committee hearing on the bill .)

Kilmartin was not available Friday for comment on the bill, his spokeswoman, Amy Kempe, said.  But in his March 27th letter to the House Judiciary Chairman, Kilmartin wrote that those who deal or distribute these drugs “know exactly what they are selling…(and) need to be held criminally liable for the deaths they cause.”

The bill has been held for further study. The attorney general’s office is “working to amend the statute to make it explicitly clear we are looking to have the ability to charge drug traffickers,’’ Kempe said Friday in an e-mail, “not those with substance use disorder even if they are selling narcotics.’’