Law enforcement's new approach to addiction in Baltimore

A pilot law enforcement program in Baltimore will not burden substance users with criminal records.

After decades of a failed war on drugs, consensus finally seems to be shifting toward a more sensible approach to drugs and addiction, one that uses a public health model as opposed to a criminal justice one.

In October, dozens of the nation's top police chiefs and prosecutors — including Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis — met in Washington, D.C. to announce a collective effort to reduce the number of people in prison. The new coalition, called Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, identified four priorities, including "increasing alternatives to arrest and prosecution, especially mental health and drug treatment."

This is a great step forward and one that Open Society Institute-Baltimore and many others in the drug addiction treatment community have proposed for years. The next steps — working out just what those alternatives to arrest and prosecution are and how we should implement them — will require a focused effort by state and local officials and behavioral health experts, with continued community input.

One very real alternative will be implemented in Baltimore in the coming months.

With grant support from OSI-Baltimore, the Baltimore Police Department and Behavioral Health System Baltimore, in partnership with other key agencies and organizations, will bring the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program to Baltimore. Launched in Seattle in 2011, LEAD encourages law enforcement officers to direct people who would otherwise be charged with and prosecuted for low-level drug-related offenses into community-based services. Unlike other diversion programs, LEAD participants are not arrested, allowing substance users to begin recovery without any time in jail or the burden of a criminal record.

Baltimore law enforcement and health professionals will pilot the program in a specific, high drug-traffic area of the city, expanding to other neighborhoods if the program has the good results expected. After an initial health assessment to determine their needs, participants will receive appropriate services to help them begin treatment and recovery, rebuild their lives and avoid further contact with the criminal justice system.

In addition, where relations between the police and the community in Baltimore have become so badly strained, LEAD will enable police to exhibit their role as public servants and assist those in need, thereby beginning to repair their relationship with the people they serve. Police officers in the targeted area will receive training to help them identify individuals eligible to participate in the program — such as by recognizing the signs and symptoms of drug addiction — and learn how to use their discretion and access to resources to assist these individuals in finding the help they need. Training sessions will also help officers better understand that individuals struggling with substance use disorders are human beings who need support — not criminals who need punishment.

The Seattle LEAD Program has reduced re-arrest rates among participants by almost 60 percent, while demonstrating that it costs less money to offer individuals subsidized housing, drug addiction treatment and job training than it does to put them in prison. Rates of overdose and overall crime have also dropped since LEAD's inception. Several other cities are in various stages of developing a LEAD program, including Sante Fe, N.M.; Atlanta, Ga.; Bangor, Maine; Camden, N.J.; Fayetteville, N.C.; Los Angeles, Calif.: Milwaukee, Wis.; and Philadelphia, Pa. Baltimore will have the opportunity to exchange ideas and lessons learned with these cities and contribute to a broader shift nationally in how urban areas deal with drug addiction.

The uprising after the death of Freddie Gray brought to the surface many entrenched problems in Baltimore and presented a unique opportunity to address them. Rethinking law enforcement's approach to drugs and addiction is just one piece of the puzzle, but it's an important one.

The new national police coalition and the LEAD program are two signs that a critical mass of key thinkers now recognizes that the criminal justice system is not the place to treat addiction. Implementing alternatives will be challenging and potentially slow work, but it is essential to helping our city recover from five decades of a failed drug war that pit police against the community and denied those struggling with the disease of drug addiction the hope that they so desperately need.

Tara Huffman (tara.huffman@opensocietyfoundations.org) is director of OSI-Baltimore's Criminal and Juvenile Justice program and Scott Nolen (scott.nolen@opensocietyfoundations.org) is director of OSI-Baltimore's Drug Addiction Treatment program.

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