SPD begins program to divert low-level drug users to treatment rather than prosecution
BY DEBBIE PAGE
The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program is now up and running at the Statesville Police Department after all personnel received training on this pre-arrest diversion program in March.
LEAD is a pre-booking program designed to divert low-level drug users and sex workers from the traditional criminal justice system into appropriate individualized treatment services.
Statesville police officers, under Chief Joe Barone, committed to the program a year ago after recognizing that alternatives to incarceration for offenders with underlying substance use disorders are more effective than traditional methods.
Barone and his officers believe this program will positively impact the community and the criminal justice system.
“These guys really do want to make a difference,” said Barone, speaking of his officers. “They want to save or change that life. It’s in their nature, so I really want to get LEAD kickstarted.”
N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein is also a strong proponent of the LEAD program, said Barone.
“If it’s a recommendation of the Attorney General, it’s something definitely we needed to consider, so that’s one of the reasons we’re on board with this,” the chief said.
Officers also believe that leading people to treatment and counseling instead of jail will help improve relationships between the SPD and community members.
Two referrals have been made in the first two weeks of the program, according to Case Manager Kayla Moore, who has been spreading the word about the program, along with Peer Support specialist Karen Lowe, to neighbors around Fifth Street Ministries, which houses the LEAD program.
The SPD initiative is the fifth of its kind in North Carolina.
Other partners with the SPD in implementing the LEAD program include the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC), Partners Behavioral Health Management, the District Attorney’s Office, and Fifth Street Ministries.
Both the Troutman and Mooresville police departments are also planning to join the LEAD program in the coming months after training is complete.
The White House’s Drug Policy for the 21st Century found that"drugs and crime are often linked, which is why addressing serious drug-related crime and violence will always be a vital component of our plan to protect public health and safety in America.”
The policy also noted: “But at the end of the day, we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem.”
Arresting those addicted to legal or illegal substances who commit low-level, non-violent offenses, usually connected with their substance use, has limited effectiveness in improving public safety and community well-being.
The LEAD program seeks outcomes that transform its clients and provides alternatives to criminalizing substance users. It recognizes addiction as a public health issue and seeks to reduce the economic and societal cost of drug use by connecting low-level offenders to support and treatment services rather than jail.
LEAD does not force anyone into addiction treatment. As case workers and peer support personnel build a relationship with the client, the person decides what kind of assistance he or she wants, and case workers set no no timeline for recovery.
LEAD staff advocate for clients by offering legal counsel, housing, health care and treatment so that clients may one day be productive citizens in healthy recovery.
LEAD also reduces criminal behavior by connecting users to treatment and social services, intensive case management, and harm reduction services such as naloxone and medically assisted substance use treatment.
Moore will refer participants to a variety of services to help get them back on track, including mental health and drug treatment, harm reduction, housing, and other needed services.
This program focuses on decreasing and/or eliminating drug use, a complex process that does not happen overnight. LEAD utilizes a “met them where they are” approach to engage clients in positive steps to cease drug use. The staff understands that recovery is a different path for each person.
Moore and Lowe will work directly with the individuals identified as potential participants by officers. Moore has both educational and professional experience in the criminal justice system and understands the population being targeted by the LEAD program. Lowe has already been providing peer support and harm reduction strategies in the community through Olive Branch Ministry.
Officers carry a LEAD information card with strict eligibility criteria and procedures for entrance into the alternative program. Low-level drug users or sex workers who are over age 18, Statesville residents, and who are open to receiving counseling, treatment, and assistance are eligible.
Officers present this program as an opportunity to take steps in a positive direction and avoid the court system and incarceration. LEAD does not require participants to totally stop using drugs but to be ready to take the opportunity to receive help and get connected to community resources.
Those who sell, distribute or traffic narcotics are not eligible, nor are those who appear to have exploited minors or are suspected of promoting prostitution. Offenders with a record of violent crime in the past decade or who are on probation or parole are also ineligible.
Officers who believe the person is an appropriate candidate will explain the no-cost LEAD program in a private, non-judgmental conversation and determine eligibility.
If the person is interested in pursuing this diversion program, the officer will complete an incident report and a LEAD screening form and then transport the person to LEAD office at Fifth Street Ministries if the incident occurs between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
After business hours and on weekends, the officer will connect the LEAD on-call person with the participant by phone to make arrangements for a later meeting. The officer will also give the participant a LEAD business card to help facilitate contact.
Participants must sign the LEAD assessment form and release all necessary information to the case manager. The participant must also meet with the case manager in person within 14 days of the report to complete an intake assessment, which examines the person’s history and substance use in order to make the appropriate connections to services.
Law enforcement has limited involvement after the referral and the person’s entry into the program, but officers are encouraged to contact the LEAD team to check on the progress of the persons they refer.
If the referred person does not make contact with Moore within 14 days, criminal charges can be issued and the LEAD program opportunity would be lost. Persons who commit to the LEAD program will not be charged.
LEAD also accepts social referrals to the program for those who are caught in a cycle of drug or sex trafficking. Concerned family, friends, or other contacts can help a person to start the harm reduction process by contacting an officer to open this door to treatment and community services.
“The reality is that most referrals in a LEAD program are social referrals,” said Melissa Larson, N.C. LEAD Coordinator. “I think that comes from officers knowing their community and understanding that if I don’t help now, I will see you again, and then there will be criminal charges. There’s nothing wrong at all with officers doing that.”
“There’s going to be charges if this person continues or they’re going to be dead,” said SPD Community Resource Coordinator Pam Navey. “The key thing is to get them to the resources to get them out of the cycle.”
The process of the social referral is the same, except there is no potential of criminal charges for failure to enter the program. However, failure to complete the intake assessment process within 14 days of referral will result in the person no longer being eligible for services unless referred again.
Officers will be encouraged to follow up with those who overdose with a home visit accompanied by Moore, introducing the substance user to her and the LEAD program and making a social referral if the person is ready for an opportunity to take positive steps and meet LEAD qualifications.
The Seattle-area LEAD program was inspired by “arrest-referral” programs in the United Kingdom. Nearly every police department there now has this program in place because pilot projects were so effective.
Since beginning in Seattle in 2011, the nation’s first LEAD program has created intense interest since many in law enforcement agree that they are losing the war on drugs. Crimes related to drug use continue to rise, and the cost of incarcerating low-level drug users is overpowering local governments.
Officers in Seattle were frustrated that low-level drug offenders often returned to the street the day after arrest and booking because prosecutors did not have the resources to take them to court.
“By helping people before they are arrested, LEAD reduces criminal behavior and reduces crime. LEAD participants in Seattle were 58 percent less likely to be rearrested within two years than those outside the program,” said Larson.
According to a 2017 peer-reviewed study in "Crime and Delinquency" that looked at 318 people suspected of low-level drug and prostitution crime in downtown Seattle, program participants were 60 percent less likely to be arrested, with 89 percent more likely to have a place to live and 46 percent more likely to have a job in the six months after enrollment compared to those not in the program.
“For us, success is measured in various ways,” said Larson.
She shared the story of one LEAD client in Fayetteville, North Carolina, who was a substance user and prostitute living in a motel. After connecting with the program and obtaining more affordable housing, “things for her blossomed. She was so excited to have her own place.”
The client proudly showed her rent receipt that she paid with a new part-time job, and she got back on methadone treatment for her drug use. “To us, that is a success story,” said Larson.
Larson also considers those clients who entered medically assisted treatment (MAT) to be success stories because they’re not actively using street drugs.
In a followup report, 18 people who were referred to the Fayetteville LEAD program were responsible for 176 arrests before entering the program. After treatment and assistance, this group had only 16 arrests, “which is a huge difference,” said Larson.
“You have to count those as successes because you are reducing the likelihood of criminal justice involvement,” said Larson. Getting someone from needle exchange to eventual treatment is also a positive step.
After getting food, housing, support services and medical care that removes the need to commit low-level crimes to survive, LEAD participants often are ready start the twisting path to addiction treatment and recovery.
The National Institute of Justice reported in 2015 that in the the first 29 months of implementation, the LEAD Seattle program costs were approximately $899 per participant per month (or $10,787 per participant per year).
Across nearly all outcomes, the researchers observed statistically significant reductions for the LEAD group participants compared to the control group on average yearly criminal justice and legal system utilization and the associated costs
In contrast, "The Federal Register" reported that the average cost of incarceration for federal inmates in fiscal year 2015 was $31,977.65 ($87.61 per day).
“Outpatient costs to treat someone in their community is somewhere between $17 and $25 per day to get them what they need,” said Larson, “but if we send them over to Iredell County Jail, it’s in the $70 range per day.”
“Just those numbers alone, which doesn’t even include the lost wages, the emergency visits -- there’s a definite disparity there.”
“If you take them over to the jail, it’s not meant to be therapeutic. You solve no problems over there. Someone is still going to exit with a mental health or substance abuse issue, and you haven’t fixed anything,” observed Larson.
“You may have punished them for their crime, but you haven’t solved any issues,” added Navey. “You’re paying that jail cost, and they’re coming back out and are still going to have to access treatment.”
“It’s about human beings,” Navey said. “It’s bigger than just saying they’re criminals. It’s about our society. It’s about generational curses, poverty, and addiction. It’s so big. I tell officers in training that your job is not just about cuffing and stuffing. You may be a hero because you’ve given someone that resource and a way out.”
“The thing that people don’t realize is that if you don’t do anything, nothing’s going to change. Their children are learning what they’re living in, and it’s just a cycle. We need to do anything we can can to break that cycle and give them some hope and change their outcome,” added LEAD partner Dana Sain, a nurse practitioner with Addiction Recovery Medical Services.