Luzerne County’s Drug Task Force made 176 arrests in 2017, the first full year the entity was under local control, District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis told county council during her annual report Tuesday night.
Salavantis had pushed to assume control of the task force from the state Attorney General’s office in late 2016, predicting local oversight of the coalition of area law enforcement agencies focused on narcotics-related investigations would bolster efforts to combat illegal drug activity.
A total of 255 law enforcement personnel from 39 local agencies are now involved in the task force, Salavantis said.
It seized 2 pounds, or 897 grams, of heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl last year, she said.
Attempting to put this quantity into perspective, Salavantis said three grains of fentanyl the size of sugar and 1 gram of heroin can kill. A gram of heroin weighs about as much as a dime, she said.
Many heroin buyers are unknowingly buying heroin laced with fentanyl or entirely composed of fentanyl, said the DA.
Salavantis said the opioid epidemic is one her major focuses. In addition to targeting dealers, she has been working with others on strategies to reduce overdoses and get more people into treatment.
There were 155 overdose deaths in the county in 2017, the third consecutive year of a new record high. Approximately 20 overdose deaths have been logged this year to date, she said.
The other 2017 task force drug seizures, according to the district attorney:
• Marijuana, 41.25 pounds (18,711 grams). Salavantis said a pound would fill a large Ziploc baggie.
• Methamphetamine, 3.65 pounds (1,656 grams)
• Crack/cocaine, 2.5 pounds (1,134 grams)
The task force also confiscated 31 weapons last year.
Her office increasingly works with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) because many weapons seized locally are coming from Philadelphia and New York City, she said. The ATF is interested in increasing its presence here, she noted.
In total, 4,688 new criminal cases were filed in the Court of Common Pleas in the county in 2017, which is a slight decrease from the 4,698 in 2016, Salavantis said.
However, she cautioned this does not include homicides still under investigation or the approximately 400 cases resolved at the county’s new magisterial-level central court.
The statistic also does not factor in 129 cases forwarded to 12 volunteer youth aid panels that develop contracts with first-time, nonviolent juvenile offenders allowing them an opportunity for a “second chance,” Salavantis said.
Seventy of these juveniles successfully completed this program last year. Another 33 have pending contracts, while 21 failed to comply. Five were referred back to the program for additional counseling, drug/alcohol testing or other intervention.
More serious juvenile cases continue to rise, with the office increasingly seeking prosecution of juveniles as adults based on the severity of their alleged crimes and criminal history, Salavantis said.
Her juvenile unit processed 417 new juvenile cases last year, compared to 411 in 2016 and 366 in 2015.
A total 1,068 DUI cases were filed last year, which was similar to the previous year.
The highest number — 139 — came in December, followed by 108 in July.
The total does not include cases in which additional charges, such as reckless endangerment, were filed, Salavantis said.
More defendants are applying for the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) program for first-time offenders attempting to get their charges erased from their record. The number seeking participation last year was 619, or an increase of 73, she said.
The office approved 493 of these applications and denied 126.
The ARD increase generated $18,235 in additional revenue above the $100,000 budgeted in that category, she said. Overall, the office brought in $866,196 in revenue last year, or $81,999 more.
County council allocated $4.345 million for office expenses last year, and Salavantis said she ended the year $125,520 under budget. The office employs 70.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.