HAMMOND — The U.S. attorney's office for the Northern District of Indiana has been ramping up its prosecution and outreach efforts to fight an opioid epidemic that takes the lives of several Region residents a month.

"In the last 10 years, the number of heroin prosecutions has exploded," said U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirsch Jr. The number of heroin charges as a percentage of the office's total drug cases has risen from 9.5 percent in fiscal 2014 to 17.6 percent in fiscal 2017.

To combat the opioid crisis, Kirsch's office has appointed an opioid coordinator, who works with local law enforcement on shaping federal cases; revised its prosecution guidelines, reducing the amount of opioids a dealer must be caught with for it to be a federal crime; and sought additional resources for prosecution and data analysis.

Kirsch noted that, along with treatment and prevention, prosecution is the third pillar in battling an epidemic that kills an estimated 115 Americans per day. In 2017, Northwest Indiana had its most drug overdoses ever, with 196 in Lake County, 50 in Porter County and 26 in LaPorte County, the vast majority of them from opioids like heroin and fentanyl.

"We've never seen in recorded history the number of overdoses. The number of overdoses are exploding," Kirsch said.

In response, the U.S. attorney's office encourages local law enforcement agencies to treat overdoses as crime scenes, investigating where the person got their drugs from and working their way up the supply chain.

"Within hours of an overdose ... you have to look at that person's phone, see who this person ... had been in contact with, get to the next source of supply, go to the next person, see if you can get cooperation, up the chain to the next person to the next person," said Jennifer Chang, opioid coordinator for the U.S. attorney's office in Hammond.

"In the ideal situation, within a matter of days you will have moved up the chain because you will have acted quickly before that information has flooded the market that this person overdosed and, 'Don't talk to law enforcement,' or, 'Everyone be on the lookout.'"

Her office hopes to add the capability to pool those investigations into a central location to have better access to the information. The office also continues to investigate doctors who are improperly or overprescribing opioids.

Prosecution guidelines relaxed

Relaxing the prosecution guidelines allows federal prosecutors to go after smaller-scale opioid dealers than in the past. They now analyze the crimes on a case-by-case basis in deciding whether to prosecute.

"If law enforcement brings us someone who is found to be problematic, someone who is known to be distributing, or maybe their distribution is tied to an overdose, more than one overdose, we certainly look at those for federal prosecution," said Jacky Jacobs, supervisor of firearms, narcotics and the violent crime unit at the U.S. attorney's office in Hammond.

"These drug dealers think that if they deal in smaller quantities, more frequently, they'll avoid federal prosecution," Kirsch said. "That is not the case."

In federal court, someone who sells a controlled substance that results in a death can face life in prison. As opposed to state court, the federal system allows for pretrial detention in nonlocal facilities as well as harsher sentences.

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The U.S. attorney's office is part of a group of local and federal law enforcement agencies that share information about suspected opioid dealers in the Region, as well another group that is working on increasing drug treatment in Northwest Indiana.

Where does heroin come from?

Much of the heroin in Northwest Indiana comes from outside the Region, but federal prosecutors aren't limited by geographical boundaries.

"Where the locals are stopped at the border, we can continue that investigation," Jacobs said.

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She said local users typically pool their money and have one person go to Chicago to buy the heroin. But she noted the drugs are also coming from as far away as Michigan, Ohio and Atlanta.

"The interstate system and the way it runs through Indiana, we get a lot of heroin from a lot of places," Kirsch said. "We get a lot of heroin from Ohio, Kentucky, comes up I-69, from Fort Wayne, then it comes across I-80, 80-90, the Toll Road, from I-94, from Detroit."

"With the convergence here of I-80, I-90 and I-94 through Northwest Indiana, additionally I-65 coming up through Kentucky and all the way down (south) ... you've got a lot of major interstates that converge here and lead directly to Detroit and Chicago."

The office also works on prevention and education, teaming up with Hobart High School students to make public service announcements that were shown to younger schoolkids.

"This is not something you can prosecute your way out of," Jacobs said.

Daniel Bella, the criminal division chief, remembered prosecuting a heroin trafficking case in the 1980s that knocked out the supply of the drug locally for decades.

"After that cause, it was zero for a long time," he said. "Now it's skyrocketed."

Kirsch said it's going to take more than just his office to solve the opioid crisis.

"I don't think there's a magic bullet unfortunately," he said. "I think it's going to take a lot of effort from different folks. There's prevention efforts, treatment efforts and there's prosecution efforts, and it's going to take all three.

"It's really a community effort. It's not just a law enforcement effort. The community pieces of this are coming together to do what they're best at and we're going to do what we're best at."

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.