Former prosecutor and judge speaks up about opioid policy

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(3TV/CBS 5) -

As a former superior court judge, Paul Katz has overseen many criminal cases, including the infamous Richard Horwitz murder trial in the early '90s.

“And earlier in my career, I spent almost seven years as a federal prosecutor here in Arizona in the United States Attorney’s office,” he recounts.

And speaking from that experience, he believes lawmakers are getting it wrong when it comes to dealing with the opioid crisis. “We have gotten more into retribution and incarceration. Then we are dealing with rehabilitation and treatment.”

Katz does think the recent law passed in Arizona is a start. And while he applauds money for treatment, he would like to see more. He also worries too much focus is being placed on physicians who prescribe painkillers. “And it's somewhere between one, and at the most, five percent of the people who are prescribed opiate medications that ever become addicted,” he explains.

And here is where Katz can also speak from a far more personal place. “My son, who is now 31 years old, about 5 years ago, started on pills,” Katz says.   “He got them on the street or from friends; he didn’t get them because of a knee injury or an athletic injury.“

Those pills not only led to a heroin addiction but a felony drug charge. That's something Katz does not believe should happen. “If it is under what we now call the 'threshold amount' and it is the first time and they are a drug user or drug possessor, I would like it to not be criminal at all. But if it is going to be criminal, treat it as a misdemeanor. And give the person an opportunity to go to rehab.”

Katz says that it's easy to say the threat of prison will force addicts to stop using, but that is not the case. “But if the county attorney or any federal or state prosecutor thinks holding the felony gun to someone’s head is going to help cure them, it won’t. Because they are not thinking like you or I are thinking that ‘I don’t want to get a felony conviction.’ They are worried about going through withdrawal."

Katz’ son avoided a felony conviction by going through a diversion program called TASC, but, Katz says even that is not addressing the problem. “It is not a treatment program,” he says.

Besides more money for treatment, he hopes lawmakers pass a needle exchange bill now working its way through the legislature. “I know our county attorney has expressed disagreement or discontent, thinking it is going to encourage addicts to continue using. But addicts aren’t t thinking in the way Bill Montgomery, or Paul Katz, or you, Jay, are thinking; they are not rational.”

And he worries a bill that would require mandatory sentencing for those caught selling opiates will also catch users trying to support their habit, again without addressing the real problem... addiction. “It is great for the employment of lawyers and judges and police officers, but it is not good for society,” Katz says, 

As for even tougher talk from the president, calling for the death sentence in some cases, Katz believes that is not the answer.  “We don’t want to kill people just because they are using drugs. We want to help them. And we want them not to commit other crimes.”

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