DuPage legislators talk of ways to fight heroin problem

Republican state legislators came to DuPage County to unveil a series of proposals to battle heroin abuse, including one that would make the heroin business less lucrative for those convicted of selling the drug.

“We need to stem the tide of the heroin epidemic today,” state Rep. Dennis Reboletti, R-46th of Addison, said at a news conference at the DuPage County Judicial Center in Wheaton.

Deaths from heroin overdoses have trended steadily higher in recent years in DuPage, spiking at 46 in 2013.

Reboletti joined a group of local Republicans in introducing a series of legislative proposals that include allowing assets seized from gangs caught selling heroin to fund substance abuse treatment programs.

The Illinois racketeering code, enacted in 2012, is modeled after federal RICO codes, but lacked any provision for asset seizure and was set to expire in 2017. Reboletti’s proposal would extend Illinois’ law until 2022 and give prosecutors the discretion to seize assets and divert a portion of them to fund substance abuse treatment programs.

“This is a way for law enforcement to work their way up from the street-level dealers to the kingpins,” Reboletti said. “It will be crucial to take the profit out of the heroin industry.”

DuPage State’s Attorney Robert Berlin noted that the first RICO prosecutions in Illinois resulted in the arrest of 31 defendants in a prominent heroin distribution ring.

Berlin said that the profits from that ring alone were estimated to be between $2,500 and $3,000 per day, and that adding the asset seizure provision would be “a huge asset to all prosecutors in this state . . . we know there’s more work to be done.”

Media reports from other jurisdictions with asset seizure show the policy can draw criticism over defendants found to be innocent, but still experiencing extreme difficulty reclaiming property. In some cases assets have been seized from defendants who were ultimately never even charged with a crime.

Both Reboletti and Berlin stressed that the proposal would allow seizure of assets only after defendants were found guilty. Berlin said that the individual’s guilt would have to be “proved beyond a reasonable doubt,” after which another legal process would address whether assets should be seized.

Reboletti said he had conversations with Democrats in both houses of the General Assembly and found “some support” for the idea of extending RICO and adding the asset seizure provision, but some had questions and concerns about the allocation of the seized assets.

The group which attended the press conference, which included state representatives Sandy Pihos, R-48th of Glen Ellyn) Patti Bellock, R-47th of Hinsdale, John Cabello, R-68th of Machesney Park and House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-82nd of Western Springs, and DuPage County Board Member Grant Eckhoff, a Wheaton Republican, also proposes a partnership between the state and DuPage County for a pilot program establishing a “last chance” substance abuse treatment facility to give youthful offenders somewhere to go other than prison.

The plan would be to fund the pilot program with a portion of the money from the 7 percent tax that will be charged on the sale of medical marijuana.

Reboletti said that the problem of heroin abuse would not be solved by saying “lock everybody up and throw away the key,” and called for a balanced approach to it.

Other pieces of state legislation, to be filed no later than Friday, include stiffer penalties for “doctor shopping” for users looking for prescriptions to satisfy their opiate habit; a proposal that each county generate drug overdose data to be shared with the state; and raising awareness of the state’s “Good Samaritan” law that protects people from being prosecuted for reporting a drug overdose.

Eckhoff said that it is important that something be done to fight heroin use in DuPage County. He pointed to the dozens of deaths last year as the reason.

“They’re not just statistics,” he said.

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