“Death by Distribution” Bill Will Backfire, says Corrections Officer

Right now, the North Carolina legislature is considering the Death by Distribution bill (H474). This misguided proposal is intended to address the crisis of drug overdose deaths in North Carolina, but based on my experience in corrections and in supporting addiction recovery, I believe it would make the crisis worse.

I began serving the North Carolina Department of Corrections in 2000. I supervised the Maximum Security Unit, became the Lead Investigator of Security Threat Groups, and led negotiations for the Prison Emergency Response Team. I met many people in prison for crimes relating to drug addiction. I am also a proud member of Brian’s War, a local group that helps people in recovery finish treatment successfully and avoid relapse upon re-entry into our community. And I volunteer with a center for children abandoned by parents addicted to drugs.

Those who proposed the Death By Distribution bill also care deeply about the opioid crisis. The bill would allow prosecutors to charge someone with a Class C or Class B2 felony, carrying a mandatory 3.5 to 32 years in prison, if they unlawfully distributed drugs that caused an individual to die of overdose. I agree with their goals of stopping overdose and bringing justice for the families of victims, but unfortunately I believe this legislation will backfire.

I am currently a corrections officer with the Department of Corrections in Indiana, where we already passed a similar bill. One of the unintended consequences of this legislation is the incarceration of a mother in her sixties because she could not bear to see her daughter shaking and vomiting from withdrawal, so she gave in and bought her drugs.

Sadly, this mother’s case is not the exception. Research shows that most of the people other states have sent to prison under this type of law are the friends and family of the victim. The career drug sellers are able to cut deals with the prosecutor to reduce their charges because they have plenty of information to trade. When the victim’s friend or family member gets caught in this situation, they have nothing of value to trade.

The bill is also more likely to increase overdose deaths than to reduce them. North Carolina has been saving lives since 2011 thanks to the Good Samaritan Law, which protects people from prosecution if they call 911 to save someone from overdose. However, as the sponsors of the current bill acknowledge, the Good Samaritan Law would not protect the person who provided the fatal dose of drugs. If this bill is passed, fewer people will call 911, fearing prosecution for their friend’s overdose. More people will die.

We should not pull the rug out from under our Good Samaritan Law for the sake of a law that has failed to show any evidence of success in other states. Research shows that Good Samaritan Laws increase 911 calls to save lives. Meanwhile, states like West Virginia have been trying to deter sales with harsh Death By Distribution-type laws for years, and they continue to lead the nation in overdose and addiction. There is no evidence these laws have helped deter sales or reduce the scale of the crisis.

We must do more to stop the opioid crisis. We must invest in treatment that works, strengthen programs for people in recovery, and distribute the overdose reversal drug naloxone to prevent overdose death. We cannot make drugs disappear from our streets by threatening harsher penalties. That simply fills our prisons — take it from a corrections officer.

Sheri Ray is a Corrections Officer for the Indiana Department of Corrections and a former Lieutenant with the North Carolina Department of Corrections. She is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of corrections officers, police, judges, and other law enforcement professionals working to improve the justice system.

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