WAYNE COUNTY, PA — In February, Wayne, Pike and state law enforcement, following a five-month long investigation, arrested seven people involved in a heroin and fentanyl ring connected to at least three overdose deaths.
Wayne County has seen about 50 overdose-related deaths since 2016.
Stories and statistics like this, according to candidates Patrick Robinson (D) and A.G. Howell (R), make addressing the opioid epidemic a top priority in this year’s race for Wayne County District Attorney. Robinson has worked in the DA’s office since 1994. He took over the top spot after Janine Edwards was elected judge in 2017. Howell grew up in Wayne County, and has been working as a criminal attorney for more than 20 years. Both candidates have highlighted the value of their experience handling thousands of criminal cases.
Robinson has made his ability to work with local law enforcement a focal point of his campaign. His platform includes supporting the death penalty for serial killers, mass murderers and those who murder public officials and law enforcement. He also supports mandatory minimums for crimes committed with a firearm. Howell is running on his merits as a criminal attorney, active community member and Republican who will uphold his party’s values.
The heroin and fentanyl ring busted this year is one of 370 drug-related cases District Attorney Robinson has handled since January 2018.
That number is just under half of the total number of cases, 797, his office has handled in the last two years.
Robinson said he doesn’t place much stock in statistics. “Drug-related” offenses, he noted, could refer to burglaries in which the perpetrator was caught with marijuana. As DA, Robinson has taken a hard line on drugs. He supports mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers and opposes the legalization of recreational marijuana, which he calls an oxymoron.
“I am all for rehabilitation, I am all for education, but I’m not really qualified to rehab people, or to educate them,” Robinson said. “The thing I’m trained to do, the thing I know something about, is prosecuting drug dealers.”
His main approach to policing the opioid epidemic has been through the Wayne County Drug Task Force, a collaboration among the DA’s office, Sheriff’s Department, Probation Department and the Honesdale, Waymart, Lehigh and Hawley police departments.
Tracking drug dealers—who often come from out of state to sell in the area and then leave—is a tough part of the job, Robinson said. Wayne County’s size and rural landscape present obstacles to effective policing.
Howell favors a more multi-layered approach that includes a balance of incarceration, rehabilitation and education. Along with heading an opioid overdose prevention group made up of stakeholders and creating an opioid-education program at local school districts, part of his philosophy is providing a “path to recovery” for first-time, non-violent, misdemeanor offenders.
The DA’s office currently participates in the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) Program, which already provides some offenders with treatment rather than punishment. Howell wants to tweak that model. His plan—modeled after DA’s offices in Brooklyn, NY and Beaver County, PA—allows offenders to complete a treatment program and avoid the consequences of a criminal record. First-time offenders wouldn’t need to sign a guilty plea—as they now do—which could be held against them if they commit another offense.
“Sometimes first-time offenders are younger, or even if they’re not younger, something triggered them to take [drugs] to try and relieve some pain or a loss in their life, and maybe we can nip it in the bud and get them treatment before they head down a path of having a second, third, fourth offense,” he said. “Everybody has seen [the opioid epidemic] one way or another in their family, so we can’t be so judgmental about it.”
In Robinson’s 25 years with the DA’s office, he’s frequently made “hard-to-police” crimes his main focus.
In his first several years working for DA Mark Zimmer, Robinson handled all child molestation cases in the county. He was awarded the Pegasus Golden Bridle Award as “Outstanding Child Abuse Prosecutor in Northeast PA” in 2006.
As DA, he still calls these cases, which typically come to the DA’s office through local schools, a top priority—as well as the hardest to prosecute.
“Normally you have what you call a ‘he-said-she-said,’” Robinson said. “You’ve got to do a lot of work and convincing to say beyond a reasonable doubt that what [the child] said is the truth.”
Howell said that his experience working as solicitor for Children and Youth Services has given him a firsthand perspective on the issue, which would help bring domestic violence cases to light. He added that being an active and visible member of the community for two decades makes him “approachable” to victims who may feel nervous coming to the DA’s office.
Howell wants to use the DA’s office to strengthen school safety. He envisions a coalition of school officials, law enforcement, mental health professionals and school behavioral health specialists that would more effectively respond to threats of school violence. He also plans to bring school districts together for planning discussions.
“Often times, school districts handle things a little differently, but you get them together and they’ll be like ‘Oh we have this issue that another district doesn’t have,’ and they can learn how to handle those issues,” Howell said.
The “biggest problem” in Wayne County has been the same for the last 30 years, says Robinson: drunk drivers.
The DA’s office has handled 193 driving-under-the-influence (DUI) cases since 2018, mostly involving alcohol, but roughly 60 of those cases involved drug use.
Robinson’s approach is one of zero tolerance. Offenders have no hope of negotiating a lesser sentence, Robinson said. They are charged in accordance with their blood alcohol content taken at the time they were stopped.
Howell put his position on the issue bluntly, “Obviously, I’ll prosecute drunk drivers.”