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Effective Compassion | How will state governments spend the money gained from opioid lawsuits?
by Charissa Koh
Posted 9/04/19, 05:32 pm

Court cases against opioid manufacturers are starting to make big bucks for the nation’s hardest-hit states. With potentially billions of dollars coming in, advocates for victims and their families want to make sure the money goes to help the people who need it most.

Opioid makers are dumping hundreds of millions of dollars in state coffers.

The opioid crisis took a toll on many sectors of society. Law enforcement, justice systems, emergency responders, healthcare providers, and treatment facilities had to hire additional staff and find resources to manage exploding numbers of opioid addicts in recent years. Opioids played a role in about 68 percent of the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

State attorneys general have gone to court, pledging to hold drugmakers accountable for deceptive marketing and business practices they said contributed to the problem. In the first state opioid case to go to trial, an Oklahoma judge ruled on Aug. 26 that Johnson & Johnson helped fuel the opioid crisis and ordered the company to pay $572 million to the state. Before the trial, two other defendants—Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries—settled with Oklahoma for $270 million and $85 million, respectively.

Many similar lawsuits are still unfolding. In Ohio, U.S. District Judge Dan Polster is overseeing the consolidated federal trial of about 2,000 cases from state and local governments against opioid makers. And recent news reports said the Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, is willing to give up control of their business, file bankruptcy, and allow it to become a public beneficiary trust to settle all the lawsuits pending against the company.

Settlements like these don’t have the best track record.

Many news outlets are drawing comparisons to the 1998 settlement 46 states reached with five major tobacco companies. The states wanted reimbursement for the harm tobacco use had caused, and the consolidated case awarded them annual payments from the companies. In December 2018, the nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reported that in 2019, settlement money and tobacco taxes totaling $27.3 billion will go to state governments, but the states will spend only 2.4 percent of the money on smoking prevention and treatment programs.

“The lesson from the tobacco settlements is that unless the state attorneys general structure the settlements in a way that mandates the money be spent to address the opioid problem, it won’t happen,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

His concern seems valid. West Virginia used money from a 2004 settlement with Purdue Pharma to build and remodel gymnasium facilities for its state police academy, and then-Gov. Joe Manchin, now a Democratic U.S. senator, requested $3 million in settlement money for a governor’s helicopter (which he did not get).

Rebecca Haffajee, a professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan, said opioid settlements are increasingly earmarked with specificity at the outset. That’s a good thing, she told me, “so long as the initial allocations are wise ones that directly improve public health outcomes.” Haffajee noted the opioid crisis cost society massively—from $75 billion in 2013 to almost $100 billion in 2017: “The settlement funds will not cover all of these costs but can make some dent in them.”

So far, states are promising to spend the money helping addicts and those who treat them.

When Purdue Pharma settled with Oklahoma in March, the state’s attorney general, Mike Hunter, announced most of the $270 million would go to Oklahoma State University’s Center for Wellness and Recovery, which works to treat the epidemic. Purdue Pharma will pay $60 million toward litigation costs, and another $12.5 million will fund city and county efforts to recover from the crisis.

Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich recently announced the creation of a nonprofit organization to advocate for settlement funds to go to hospitals instead of state governments. “I don’t want the money to go to fill potholes or to fill a budget gap or something like that,” he said. “I want the money to go to the people who are on the front lines, because they are right up against the wall.”

Associated Press/Photo by Bryan Cox/ICE Associated Press/Photo by Bryan Cox/ICE Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents outside a home in Atlanta

Immigrant arrests increase but not for violent crime

The number of noncitizens arrested by U.S. law enforcement officers more than tripled in the last 20 years, according to a report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on Aug. 22. The data reflect a crackdown on illegal immigration rather than an increase in violent crime by immigrants, with immigration-related crimes accounting for 95 percent of the bump.

Authorities arrested 125,027 noncitizens in 2018, 50,000 more than in 2017. Most of those arrests were for immigration-related crimes, with illegal reentry making up the largest share of noncitizen arrests at 72 percent. The next largest, drugs, accounted for 13 percent. Noncitizens made up 64 percent of all federal arrests.

The libertarian Cato Institute in August released an updated report on 2017 arrests in Texas, which showed authorities were less likely to convict illegal immigrants of a crime than a native U.S. citizen. That year, the conviction rate among illegal immigrants for homicide was 2.5 per 100,000 residents, compared to 3.6 among native-born Americans. The difference was even more dramatic in some other areas—the conviction rate for sex crimes among illegal immigrants was about 14 percent below that of native-born Americans in 2017. —Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Associated Press/Photo by Elise Amendola Associated Press/Photo by Elise Amendola Sirlen Costa of Brazil (left) holds her son, Samuel, whom she brought to the United States for medical care as her niece Danyelle Sales looks on.

U.S. backtracks on unpopular immigration policy

Federal immigration authorities on Tuesday said they would reopen the cases of illegal immigrants who had applied for a deferred deportment. Many immigrants request the deferments while they or their family members receive medical treatment in the United States.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Aug. 7 said it would no longer consider requests for deferments unless they came from U.S. military members or their families. The agency ordered pending applicants to leave the country within 33 days, sparking a public outcry. An agency spokeswoman said requests would have to go through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency tasked with enforcing immigration laws, going forward. USCIS, which processes immigration applications, estimates it receives about 1,000 requests for deferred action per year that aren’t related to the military or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Most of those are for medical or financial hardships.

Tuesday’s announcement didn’t say whether the agency would accept new applications, only it would reopen cases that were pending at the time of the first announcement. The U.S. House of Representatives has a hearing on the policy scheduled for Friday. —R.L.A.

Bad words

California is continuing its crusade of behavior management via the dictionary. Following a move by the University of California, Berkeley, to enforce gender-neutral language in July, San Francisco is considering a proposition regulating how the city and county refer to residents with criminal records.

The proposition argues that words like “prisoner,” “convict,” “inmate,” or “felon” are dehumanizing and alienating. It promotes “person-first language,” including “formerly incarcerated person,” “justice-involved,” or “person convicted of” a certain offense.

While the desire to use respectful language toward people is laudable, banning words may not be a good go-to solution for society’s woes. —R.L.A.

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a reporter for WORLD.

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