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Diversion Programs Offer a Fresh Approach

December 18, 2018
As the opioid crisis heightens, law enforcement agencies across the nation are taking a new approach by implementing diversion programs that set people up for long-term recovery instead of jail time. “It has become commonplace to observe that the War on Drugs has failed and that we cannot arrest our way out of problems caused by addiction and mental health issues,” says Lisa Daugaard, director of Public Defender Association, a not-for-profit that advocates for justice system reform and develops alternatives that shift from punishment to a system that supports individual and community health. One of the organization’s programs includes Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), a diversion alternative to jail in response to drug activity and street-based sex workers. LEAD is a collaboration between police, district attorneys, civil rights advocates, public defenders, political leaders, mental health and drug treatment providers, housing providers, and business and neighborhood leaders. It was designed in 2010 and launched in Seattle a year later, then in Santa Fe in 2014. In 2015, Albany, N.Y., and two West Virginia cities launched the program. Since 2016, the program has gone on to be replicated across the nation. “In Seattle, LEAD grew out of eight years of conflict and protracted litigation over racial disparity in Seattle drug arrests. Police and prosecutors eventually joined our office, the Public Defender Association Racial Disparity Project, in recognizing that the status quo was contributing to community dissatisfaction with policing while not accomplishing any significant gains in public order or decreased drug use or drug dealing,” Daugaard says. Larry Reik, police chief for Eastlake, Ohio, agrees that today’s environment calls for a new approach, especially in a city that has seen overdose rates nearly triple since 2015 and continue to rise. His department implemented the Safe Passage Initiative in June, a program that allows those with substance use disorders to seek help without the fear of jail time. If drugs or other paraphernalia are surrendered or at the person’s residence, then the police department will arrange to dispose of them without an arrest. The individual will then be directed to treatment via one of the program’s mental health partners. “We’re all affected by this epidemic personally and professionally. Every police officer knows someone who is affected; it’s not like it was 15 years ago, and no one was ready for this type of spike,” Reik says. “If you’re not going to do something outside of the box to combat what we’re dealing with, you’re going to be taking care of break-ins and thefts and other things.” How the programs work Daugaard says LEAD is a crime prevention/reduction program that uses human resources tools, and it is not a human resources program. “This is an important point because a nexus to ongoing criminal activity is required at the time of referral. Either the individual must be under arrest for a divertible crime—at this juncture, that includes drug crimes, prostitution, obstructing, theft, property destruction, trespass or unlawful bus conduct—or law enforcement must have a basis to believe that the person does have ongoing involvement in law violations related to addiction, mental illness and/or extreme poverty,” she says. She says there are two roads into LEAD in most jurisdictions: arrest referral and social contact referral. An arrest referral means an officer has probable cause to make an arrest for a divertible crime, explains LEAD to a potential participant, and the individual voluntarily chooses to meet with a LEAD case manager rather than being booked into jail. If the person agrees to a release of information allowing the case management team to share information as needed with other LEAD operational partners, and if the individual completes a full psycho-social intake interview within 30 days, the diverted case will never be filed by prosecutors. Secondly, social contact referrals can originate with any source, but they must be vetted by law enforcement to confirm there is a basis to believe the candidate has ongoing involvement with law violations. But regardless of the road an individual takes to the program, the following methodology is the same, Daugaard says. “The individual receives long-term wrap-around case management, in a harm reduction framework, utilizing motivational interviewing, and working on issues that the participant defines as goals.” More than 50% of LEAD participants eventually embark on drug treatment, but treatment is not necessarily at the forefront of the initial engagement by officers or case managers, she says. Managers handle about 25 to 30 cases and are field-based, so they meet participants where they are. LEAD also features long-term justice system coordination, with police officers, prosecutors and case managers working together to make sure that every “system” touch with the individual is coordinated to ensure the best chance of improving the person’s behavior and circumstances. Daugaard says that over 600 people have been referred to the program, and nearly 400 are actively receiving assistance in any given quarter. Eastlake’s Safe Passage Initiative works a little differently, but its goals are similar in that long-term treatment plans are at the forefront. Reik says the police department works with the county and a nearby mental health facility to establish what type of coverage an individual might have to determine the best course of treatment, whether it be inpatient or outpatient. He says the participant must come in voluntarily, however. For example, if someone is pulled over and drugs or paraphernalia is found in the car, that person cannot opt into the program just to avoid an arrest at that time. “That would be like a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Reik says, adding that the individual is welcome to start the program after processing. Additionally, if an individual comes in for the program but he or she has warrants, those need to be addressed. Reik says people began coming to the department for help through the initiative the first day of launch, and as of early October, the program has helped set a course of treatment for 11 county residents. Wave of the future Diversion programs are a future direction for law enforcement because other alternatives are drying up, Daugaard says. “In general, local and state governments are not building new prisons. We have hit ‘peak jail,’ and there is a crude basic recognition among budget analysts and elected officials that new directions are needed,” she says. “The law enforcement interest in high-quality diversion programs lies in a desire for improved dynamics with policed communities, a desire to prevent and reduce crime through effective methods of engaging highly marginalized people, and the opportunity to partner with skilled partners outside of law enforcement. All have proven strong motivators for both rank and file officers and command-level police leaders.” Reik agrees that these programs will be the norm moving forward, with more police chiefs opening up to the idea of implementing them. “The more reports these guys are reading, it just softens us up more to be more assisting with the social part of it rather than just enforcement,” he says. What’s more, these programs help to combat the stigma associated with substance use disorders, Daugaard says. “By exposing neighborhood and law enforcement partners to the trauma origins of many dysfunctional coping behaviors, people struggling with very difficult challenges are humanized, and genuine relationships established and deepened,” she says. Alicia Hoisington is a freelance writer based in Ohio.
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