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Heroin, pills overwhelm W.Va. court system

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Probation officer Krista Ellison can’t begin to count how many times she’s seen a parent of a drug addict beg for a judge to throw their son or daughter in jail.

And far too often, Ellison and other court officials say, jail is the only option.

“Here, it’s a smaller community and many of the judges know a person’s family and truly couldn’t live with themselves if something happened,” said Ellison, who works in the Mercer County Probation Office. “They’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m putting you in jail. I can’t live with that on my conscience, knowing you walked out of here and died.’”

The opioid epidemic is consuming the state’s court system and requiring judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and probation officers to make what may be life-saving decisions.

West Virginia has the highest rate of overdose deaths in the U.S., more than double the national average. Over the past five years, nearly 2,900 West Virginians have died after overdosing on prescription painkillers or heroin, according to the state Health Statistics Center. President Obama is coming to Charleston on Wednesday to talk about the opioid epidemic facing the state and the nation.

In courtrooms across West Virginia, judges see people selling drugs or stealing to support habits, and neglecting children in order to get high.

“Judges have now become quasi social workers…

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