ST. GEORGE — It doesn't take a celebrity death to remind Staten Island's top prosecutor that prescription drug addiction is a crisis, especially in his corner of New York City.
Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan, who is in his ninth year on the job, has seen prescription drugs become the new crack cocaine, as street gangs deal out the pricey pills in his middle-class neighborhoods at a growing rate.
"New York City gangs now have found a market for selling prescription drugs where in the past they sold heroin or cocaine," Donovan told DNAinfo in a recent interview.
"We have arrested gang members with large amounts of [prescription drugs]."
Donovan, 55, has made his mark since he took over the prosecutor's seat in 2004, becoming the first Republican to be elected district attorney in New York City in 50 years.
He was reelected to a third term in 2011 with more than 70 percent of the vote, giving him the mandate to help push through three of his top priorities:
- Establishing a national pharmaceutical drug registry requiring pharmacists to input pill sales.
- Focusing on rehabilition as an alternative to incarceration.
- Expanding a GPS ankle-bracelet tracking system for domestic violence offenders.
Headline-grabbing pharmacy heists and celebrity deaths from overdoses of legal medicines have pushed the problem of prescription drug abuse into prominence.
But it's nothing new to Donovan.
His office locked in indictments last month against 19 suspects charged with pushing prescriptions like Oxycodone and other drugs that treat anxiety, seizures and opiate addictions in a sweep dubbed "Operation Pill Crusher." In addition to the prescription drugs, the loosely knit gang is suspected of selling cocaine, heroin and other drugs near Main Street in Tottenville on the island's South Shore.
Among those arrested as part of the "Drug Supermarket" were Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority cop Thomas Bianco, 40, and his wife Jennifer, 38, who are accused of hawking cocaine, Oxycodone and marijuana from their home, in the presence of their three children.
Last year, 31 people were arrested on charges that they delivered thousands of pills to customers using "Lickety Split" ice cream trucks, Donovan said. They were found with more than 300 illegally obtained prescription slips, he said.
Donovan, who mounted an unsuccessful bid for state attorney general in 2010, has been stumping for additional crackdowns on local pharmacies and new laws that would hold doctors accountable for the drugs they prescribe and the prescription pads they are issued.
He said his goal is a national pharmaceutical drug registry in which pharmacists would be required to input prescription pill sale information for instant recognition of doctor information, the recipient's ID, and other necessary data.
Without it, he said, it's far too easy for pill buyers to hop from state to state, collecting drugs from pharmacies using either a legitimately issued prescription — or one that is forged on a stolen pad.
Prescription pads have been known to disappear from delivery trucks, printers and the desks of doctors' offices, all of which can be prevented through stricter oversight, he said.
Still, he also sees the need to balance the prescription drug war with an understanding that many offenders turn to crime to feed powerful addictions.
Many of these offenders — generally those charged with non-violent crimes — are referred to drug court and recommended for treatment not jail as part of a program Donovan says he firmly backs.
"I need my resources for bad guys," Donovan said, adding that successfully reforming an addict will provide "more of an assurance" that he or she won't be rearrested.
His belief in rehabilitation stems from his own family experience. He says he was inspired by his father's successful recovery from alcoholism.
"I wouldn't be the DA if he didn't get sober," Donovan said about his dad, a longshoreman who raised his family in Tompkinsville.
Another crisis Donovan has identified is the growing problem of domestic violence in Staten Island.
"Every day, my biggest pile of cases are domestic violence cases," he said.
Assistant prosecutors are currently assigned to help victims create safety plans that work for them.
In November, Donovan launched a pilot program for a GPS-tracking system of domestic violence offenders, using ankle bracelets. The ankle bracelets, which are currently mandatory for house-arrest situations, are designed to help law enforcement protect victims from continued abuse, he said.
The system is set up to instantly warn victims if their attacker is closer than the minimum distance set by their order of protection. It also alerts the local NYPD precinct and the DA's office, he said. Police can then pursue criminal contempt charges for violating the court order.
The abuser is responsible for footing the $300 monthly bill for the tracking system, if they can afford it.