The effects of the opioid epidemic on the criminal justice system are visible in arrests and convictions involving distribution of opioids and reported use of opioids among inmates entering state prisons. Tracking the number of arrests and convictions involving opioids provides a picture of the opioid epidemic across our counties and by age and gender. Likewise, the impact of the epidemic can be seen in the number of incarcerated people who report use of opioids.
Reported Violations and Arrests Involving Opioids
The Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) tracks the number of arrests and seizure incidents for different types of drugs. These include seizures and arrests for opioids (opium, heroin, and fentanyl) through undercover buys, search warrants, traffic stops, and other investigations. An incident is a reported violation of the Controlled Substance Act, which is entered into the PSP Statistical Narcotics Reporting System. Federal cases are excluded from these data.
The visuals show the number of PSP arrests involving opioids, both felony and misdemeanor, in connection with the seizure of the reported drug. Hovering over data points also shows the number of opioid-related incidents, which do not necessarily result in an arrest. In general, these visuals indicate arrests involving opioids have increased over time.
The map below shows the total opioid related arrests in each county for the year selected. More information is available on statewide quarterly and annual trends.
Prosecution of Criminal Cases Involving Opioids
A central source of information for criminal cases involving opioids across the Commonwealth is the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC). AOPC is the administrative arm of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. One of AOPC’s many responsibilities is the development and maintenance of various statewide case management systems used by the different levels of courts in the Commonwealth. The impact of the opioid epidemic on PA courts (i.e. courts of common pleas and Philadelphia Municipal Court) was estimated by reviewing criminal cases wherein the defendant was convicted of 35 P.S. §780-113, (a)(30)(manufacture, delivery, or possession with intent to manufacture or deliver a controlled substance), and the court identified the drug type involved. Court case dates were based on the disposition date or the date when the defendant was convicted of the particular offense. In the context of litigation, disposition refers to a court’s final determination of a case or issue. Court of common pleas cases and Philadelphia Municipal Court cases with a conviction of Subsection (a)(30) that named a specific opioid drug were labeled as opioid court cases. Note that some court cases begun in one year are not fully disposed until the next year. Some court cases did not specify a drug or only reported the schedule of drug and therefore could not be accounted for in the analysis.
The figure at right displays the annual rate of opioid court cases per 1,000 total court cases. Hover over the bars to see the rate along with the overall total number of court cases that year. Trends by county, age (annual percent & quarterly counts), and gender (annual percent & quarterly counts) are also available.
Problem-solving courts focus on specific types of behaviors or conditions often linked to crime and social problems such as drug addiction, untreated mental illness and alcohol abuse. The goal of problem-solving courts is to facilitate rehabilitation of carefully screened and selected defendants who are willing to try to change their behavior. Instead of a jail sentence, defendants are given counseling, treatment for their addictions or illnesses, educational assistance and healthcare support. Today, over half of the judicial districts in the Commonwealth have adult drug courts or have adapted the drug court model to create juvenile drug courts, DUI courts, mental health courts, veterans’ courts and family treatment courts. More information about problem-solving courts can be found here.
To account for the impact of opioids on drug courts, data from the AOPC are displayed below. The data represent participants in adult drug courts who self-reported an opioid (heroin and opiates as listed in the AOPC Data Dashboard) as their drug of choice. Adult drug court data is aggregated to annual counts by state and county of jurisdiction as well as percentage of participants that successfully completed the program. The year displayed corresponds to the year the participant completed the program. It should be noted that while the program can take one to two years to complete, it is also common for a participant to remain in the program for a longer period of time. Additional data on adult drug court participants for all drugs can be found on AOPC’s Data Dashboard.
The figure below displays the percentage of adult drug court participants self-reporting opioids as their drug of choice by year discharged and county. Use the filter on the right to change the counties displayed. Additional information on the percentage of all adult drug court participants successfully graduating from the program compared to participants self-reporting opioids as their drug of choice successfully graduating from the program is also available. Percentages are grouped by year of discharge.
Inmates entering state prisons are screened for substance use through the administration of the Texas ChristianUniversity Drug Screen II (TCU) tool. This tool asks the person what three drugs they use most often. Those identified as having used opioids in the 12 months prior to admission are reported by the Department of Corrections. More information about the scoring for the TCU tool can be found here. The questions used in the tool can be found here. Data are presented on new admissions that reported using opiates or heroin in the 12 months prior to admission based on valid TCU scores. The PA DOC evaluates the person's individual healthcare needs, psychological needs, treatment programming needs and offers many programs to address an inmates treatment needs. In January 2018, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania declared the opioid crisis in Pennsylvania as a disaster emergency and directed that Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) be provided within the DOC's prison system. These medications include methadone, naltrexone (Vivitrol and Revia), and buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex, and Sublocade).
The figure below displays the quarterly trend for this population by gender. Annual trends by gender are also available for these data. While women make up a small portion of the state penitentiary population, they are more likely to report opioid use than men.
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Supported by the Aetna Foundation, a philanthropic affiliate of CVS Health based in Hartford, Connecticut that supports projects to promote wellness, health and access to high-quality health care for everyone. The views presented here are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Aetna Foundation, its directors, officers, or staff.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health and the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health conducted the analysis for the results presented in the Community Impacts section of the PA Opioid Dashboard.