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Lessons learned: Prosecutors’ approaches to heroin epidemic differ from crack’s heyday

Attorney Mike McCann, Milwaukee County’s district attorney for 37 years before retiring in 2006, stands by a Milwaukee office building Nov. 8. McCann questions how prosecutors approached drug epidemics 20 years ago versus today. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Attorney Mike McCann, Milwaukee County’s district attorney for 37 years before retiring in 2006, stands by a Milwaukee office building Nov. 8. McCann questions how prosecutors approached drug epidemics 20 years ago versus today. (Staff photos by Kevin Harnack)

Nearly two decades after the height of crack cocaine use in Milwaukee, former District Attorney Mike McCann questions the tactics his office used to prosecute the problem.

The early 1990s was a violent time in the city, he said, and many crimes were related directly or indirectly to the addictive drug and its sale. The common response was to prosecute users and request long prison sentences. But that only resulted in a bloated prison population of mostly black residents, McCann said, and didn’t get to the real root of the addiction problem.

“It certainly wasn’t completely effective in wiping out drugs because drug use still continues,” said McCann, Milwaukee County district attorney for 37 years before retiring in 2006.

In the years since the early 1990s, prosecutors and law enforcement departments in Milwaukee — as well as in many parts of Wisconsin and the rest of the country — decided to change their tactics. Treatment now is part of the equation to ensure that drug users are getting help and are less likely to re-offend.

In the past 17 years, 53 drug courts, which generally are designed to divert nonviolent offenders into treatment, have opened in Wisconsin. Those courts now are at the center of the latest drug problem to hit Wisconsin: heroin.

It remains to be seen whether the courts’ two-pronged approach — treatment first, incarceration second — will be effective against what Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has called an epidemic.

Heroin is rising in popularity because it is inexpensive, available and extremely addictive, Assistant Attorney General Karie Cattanach said. Addicts often start with legal painkillers and spiral out of control.

“The goal of doing heroin is to come as close to death as possible without dying because it’s the best high,” Cattanach said. “We’re dealing with a much more dangerous drug.”

According to Van Hollen and others, it is a drug problem that cuts across racial and economic barriers and is affecting areas of Wisconsin far beyond the densely populated streets of Milwaukee. The proportion of drug-related deaths involving heroin more than doubled between 2005 and 2010, according to a 2012 report by the state’s Department of Health Services.

Heroin-related crimes now account for three-quarters of cases in Milwaukee County’s drug court, which was founded in 2009.

“In the last year and a half, the drug of choice has really changed dramatically from when we started,” said Carol Carlson, Milwaukee County Drug Treatment Court coordinator. “When we started, cocaine was a problem.”

Van Hollen’s office recently launched a public-awareness campaign on the mounting heroin problem. According to an Oct. 15 column attributed to Van Hollen, 56 Wisconsin counties in 2012 submitted heroin evidence to the state’s crime lab, up from 22 in 2005.

To combat the increase in heroin-related cases, Van Hollen’s office is encouraging counties to apply for Treatment Alternatives and Diversion grants, which provide money to start programs that would help divert nonviolent offenders from incarceration. Wisconsin’s 2013-15 budget includes $2.5 million for TAD programs.

The growing emphasis on treatment is meant to prevent another flood of drug-addicted men and women from entering Wisconsin’s prisons.

“For us working [in drug courts], we know that prison doesn’t make a difference at all,” said Carlson, who is president-elect of the Wisconsin Association of Treatment Court Professionals. “A lot of money has gone into prisons, and people are coming out worse.”

Professor Michael O’Hear, associate dean of research, stands at Marquette Law School. O’Hear has studied drug enforcement history and federal sentencing guidelines.

Professor Michael O’Hear, associate dean of research, stands at Marquette Law School. O’Hear has studied drug enforcement history and federal sentencing guidelines.

A 2012 analysis by the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that increased investment in TAD and drug court programs could save the state tens of millions of dollars a year.

Carlson said a person who enters Milwaukee County’s drug court and avoids incarceration can save the state or county, on average, about $12,000.

That is not to say that everybody who has a drug problem is treated the same, said Kent Lovern, Milwaukee County district attorney chief deputy. Prosecutors, he said, try to distinguish between users and distributers, and encourage users to enter treatment.

The old approach, which favored incarceration for users and distributors, proved “very, very costly,” said professor Michael O’Hear, the associate dean of research at Marquette Law School. The theory during crack’s heyday, he said, was that a harsh sentence would be a deterrent.

“Did that really have an impact on the drug trade?” he said. “It’s not so clear that it did.

“The fact is … you’re talking to a great extent to people who have great desperation in their lives …”

Stan Stojkovic, dean of the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said the approach to heroin, by contrast, is much improved. He praised efforts led by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, whose prosecutors now are treating addiction “not just as a criminal justice issue,” Stojkovic said, “[but] a public health issue.”

Citing the expansion of Chisholm’s involvement in drug court and TAD programs, which includes screening and monitoring inmates following an arrest, Stojkovic said Milwaukee County and the state are getting smarter about how to prosecute and handle drug cases.

“There is enough systematic evidence,” he said, “[to show] that this is a better way of doing things than locking people up.”

When dealing with drug problems as rampant as crack cocaine and heroin, McCann said, the more options, the better.

“It’s a devastating problem,” he said, “and you approach it with all the resources you have.”

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