Offenders in some counties serve a decade or more in prison while offenders in a neighboring county aren't even charged, Gannett Wisconsin Media reported Sunday. And of those who are convicted, some are sentenced to as little as nine months in jail while others get 12 years in prison.
The counties that have been especially aggressive about filing charges include Waukesha, Fond du Lac and La Crosse.
Some prosecutors say they would file charges against more drug suppliers, but that sometimes it's hard to prove who provided the dose that caused the death. Often the drug user had contact with several people who could have provided the drugs, Dodge County District Attorney Kurt Klomberg said.
"We might have a good idea who it was, but being able to actually reach a level where we can charge and prove the case is another story," he said.
In other cases, police don't always think to immediately investigate deaths as drug-related.
Lance Leonard, an assistant prosecutor in Marathon County, recalled the time several years ago that a body was released to a family and cremated because the death wasn't flagged as suspicious. Blood taken before cremation revealed a level of heroin intoxication that was likely fatal, but prosecutors couldn't prove heroin was the cause without an autopsy to rule out other causes of death.
Leonard said police now contact him immediately after any suspicious death to ensure a proper investigation.
County prosecutors charged 71 people with first-degree reckless homicide by drug delivery last year. That's up from 47 the previous year.
The homicide charge carries a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison, but of the 21 people convicted last year the average sentence was just over six years. Five people received at least 10-year sentences, although a Dane County judge sentenced one man to nine months in jail for bringing heroin to a homebound disabled friend.
The harshest penalty went to a Waukesha man who was sentenced to 12 years after two friends died of heroin overdoses.