By Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33)
Reports of murders, robberies, car jackings and property destruction dominate headlines these days as Pennsylvania communities fall deeper into chaos and lawlessness. Federal statistics show violent crimes reported across the state increased in 2021, outpacing the national average.
According to the 2022 State of Safety report, nearly half of Pennsylvanians say the COVID-19 pandemic affected their personal safety.
It’s a trend that’s repeated in a survey my office recently distributed asking residents to describe their concerns about rising crime. Many told me they feel less safe and blame drug addiction, above all else, for fueling the increase.
We recognize the layered and complex reasons people abuse drugs and commit crimes, though some triggers have been worse than others in recent years. Statistics from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities show roughly one third of Americans struggled to cover living expenses last year, while more than 20 million people worried about putting food on the table.
Opioid overdoses also spiked as isolation and desperation from prolonged pandemic restrictions kept families and friends apart. In 2021 alone, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said more than 100,000 people died across the country from fentanyl and opioid overdoses, a 15% increase over the year before. Pennsylvania ranks third nationwide for these fatalities.
The opioid epidemic has laid waste to this nation and Pennsylvania is clearly no exception. Fentanyl-laced drugs spill over our borders and find passage along a network of highways that reach every corner of the country.
Over the summer, law enforcement in Oregon sounded the alarm over more potent rainbow-colored pills laced with fentanyl that began circulating along the West Coast. The alarming news proves exactly why drug dealers must pay for the lives they take every single day – something for which Pennsylvania’s existing laws fall woefully short.
Under the existing “drug delivery resulting in death” statute, defendants often cut deals for lenient sentencing and little to no jail time. It’s a horrific miscarriage of justice that allows dealers to walk away scot-free for callously profiting off the escalating opioid epidemic.
That’s why I introduced Tyler’s Law in June to impose mandatory 25-year minimum sentences for fentanyl distribution that results in death. It’s a necessary step to save lives and hold dealers accountable for the destruction and pain caused by their ruthless greed.
But it’s not just about punishing those who sell drugs. Thanks to the Overdose Mapping Act, which became law just this month, first responders – including law enforcement and emergency medical services – will now report overdoses into an electronic statewide system.
Standardizing use such a system will help local officials identify emerging trends, mobilize an emergency response and alert law enforcement and EMS to the existence of fentanyl-laced drugs in a particular region.
We can’t put out fires that we can’t see and consistently using a mapping tool like this will give our first responders the visibility they need to act quickly, save lives and make communities safer.
Although overdose mapping will be a game changer for our communities, it’s certainly not the end of what we, as lawmakers, can do to support our first responders on the front lines trying to save lives every day.
That’s why we established the $135 million Law Enforcement Recovery Grant Program in the 2022-23 budget to ensure police departments have the resources and staffing necessary to fight rising crime, tackle the opioid crisis and ease the mental and physical impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I championed the legislation this summer after months of raising awareness about the devastating impact the pandemic and anti-police sentiment had on recruitment, retention and crime prevention efforts. This investment will help our state get back onto a path of safety and prosperity, though admittedly, it will be an arduous journey.
And it’s one law enforcement can’t complete alone. That’s why I recently sponsored the Fighting Chance Act, which would reduce the obstacles individuals convicted for nonviolent offenses face when reentering society.
These people deserve a chance at economic security and freedom, which would reduce recidivism and lower the state’s overall crime rate. Overcoming poverty can end the destructive cycles that often spiral into drug addiction, illegal activity and violent crime.
And while I’m proud of the steps we’ve taken to address the systemic links between substance abuse and rising crime, I’m painfully aware there’s always so much more we can, and should, do.