The Baltimore Police Department, working with a local nonprofit organization, is planning an experimental program that would divert low-level drug offenders to treatment and support services while allowing them to avoid arrest.
The program, known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is part of a broader shift in Maryland and across the nation from the arrest-and-convict strategy that has dominated drug policies for the past half-century.
"Criminalizing individuals with addiction is not the answer," said Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore's health commissioner, who is working with police on the new program. "We must treat addiction as a disease and not a crime or a moral failing. LEAD is an innovative, evidence-based strategy that diverts people with addiction away from arrest and incarceration and instead gives them the medical treatment they need."
The program is similar to alternatives, including drug court, that offer treatment instead of jail sentences to abusers. Offenders will get a chance to sidestep an arrest record that could harm their chances of obtaining jobs, housing and education.
"What is unusual about this program is that there is no arrest at all," said Diana Morris, the director at Open Society Institute-Baltimore, which is funding it. "That's important because it allows those who have addiction problems to not have the arrest on their record or go through the revolving door of the criminal justice system."
Heroin has created a thriving sub-economy in Baltimore where there are an estimated 19,000 users and annual spending on the drug is estimated to be least $165 million, The Baltimore Sun has found.
Police also say heroin has been a factor in the city's high homicide rate. And overdoses have increased statewide, more than doubling since 2010. Last year, heroin claimed 578 lives in Maryland.
Treatment-focused themes have also been emphasized in local and state heroin task force reports in recent months. Gov. Larry Hogan's task force, for example, called for more treatment for addicts while in prison, and after they are released — a time when they are particularly vulnerable to overdose.
"I think they've found jail doesn't help," said Sen. Katherine Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat who served on Hogan's task force. "They come out worse than when they [went] in," she said, referring to both the accessibility of drugs in prison and the criminal record that often limits a successful re-entry into society.
Baltimore's drug economy — which includes at least 19,000 heroin addicts and casual users — has been a factor in the city's high homicide rate, police say. Meanwhile, heroin overdoses have increased statewide, more than doubling since 2010. Last year, heroin claimed 578 lives in Maryland.
The local LEAD program is modeled after one that began in 2011 in Seattle, where authorities also have struggled to deal with the city's chronic drug problem.
Six months ago, Genesha Martin, chief of the community engagement division under then-Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, visited the Seattle Police Department. It had been investigated by the U.S. Justice Department, which found a pattern of excessive force and evidence of biased policing that led to a consent decree.
"They were an example of a department that resisted [the Justice Department] in the beginning," Martin said, "But they worked with [the Justice Department] and are now touted as a police department with best practices."
By that time, the Justice Department had opened a similar investigation into Baltimore's Police Department in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death. The 25-year-old West Baltimore man suffered a fatal spine injury while in police custody in April.
Martin was impressed by Seattle's LEAD program. "It made a huge difference in the downtown community," she said.
Martin said some Seattle officers were skeptical about the new approach. "It was mind-boggling for them to know [offenders] are doing something, but instead of arresting them, they would get them treatment," she said. Eventually, she said, officers came to support the program.
Offenders in the program were 60 percent less likely to commit another offense than a control group that went through the usual enforcement practice, according to a University of Washington study published in March.
Martin went to a seminar about LEAD at the White House with then-Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis and officials from more than 30 other localities. At least eight other cities are running or in the process of launching the program, including Santa Fe, N.M.; Bangor, Maine; Los Angeles; Atlanta and Philadelphia.
Davis, who replaced Batts as commissioner in July, also came away energized about the program.
"One of the things we want to achieve is how [Baltimore residents] look at a uniform," said Martin, who now oversees compliance with the ongoing Justice Department investigation. "We want [a resident] to look at us as someone who will help me, who will make me feel safe."
The program, scheduled to begin in early 2016, will be funded by a $200,000 grant from the Open Society Institute-Baltimore that will pay for staffing, evaluation, screening and equipment over the next year. The logistics of the program are still being worked out, but Martin said it will be modeled after the Seattle program.
There, officers divert low-level drug and prostitution offenders with substance abuse problems into community-based treatment and support services such as housing, job training and mental health support.
Offenders sign an agreement with the prosecutor's office to get help and achieve certain goals. If they fail, an arrest warrant is issued and they are charged with the original offense, said Patrick Michaud, a spokesman for the Seattle police.
"This is for people who need it and are crying out for help," Michaud said. "This is a carrot to motivate yourself to move forward. If that doesn't work out, the criminal justice system is there for you."
He said the program is restricted to nonviolent offenders and excludes those involved in more serious offenses such as dealing drugs.
Local partners in Baltimore include Behavioral Health System Baltimore and the state's attorney's office.
"I applaud the Baltimore Police Department's efforts to divert individuals and direct them to the resources they need to address the underlying reasons why they are committing crimes," said State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby. "It's programs and partnerships like this that will help restore faith in our criminal justice system."
Morris said the LEAD program is one of several initiatives that could drive down incarceration rates and drug addiction across the nation.
"We've gotten ourselves into a real mess," she said. "Everybody now knows we can't arrest our way out of it."
Wen and Del. Dan Morhaim, both emergency room physicians, said they see patients suffering from heroin and opioid misuse on a daily basis and agree that arresting abusers is not the solution.
Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat, is considering proposing legislation in the coming General Assembly session that would go a step further than a program such as LEAD. He wants to eliminate the economic incentives of the drug economy and help offenders stay off the streets in the first place.
"We have to start thinking of ways to get money out of the trade," he said. Morhaim points to European programs in which substance abusers can go into special facilities for free use or treatment — thus reducing the need to steal or commit other crimes to obtain money for drugs.
Although the city and state heroin task forces focused on treatment and other support-related solutions, the tough-on-crime strategy still has some allure. The report issued by Hogan's task force this month called for increasing penalties for anyone who sold heroin that resulted in an overdose.
"Someone has to take responsibility," said Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford, who chaired the task force. He said the recommendation to pass a state racketeering law would help prosecutors punish major suppliers.
Rutherford said any proposal to completely decriminalize heroin or other drugs, or to make them free for treatment, would be "unworkable."
Rutherford's priority for the Assembly session is to pass a prescription drug monitoring system. He noted that the vast majority of new heroin users previously abused prescription drugs.