The police officers and public health officials who have to deal with minor, low level drug and prostitution offenders on a regular basis are constant witnesses to a depressingly familiar pattern. First, lock up the desperate men and women crazy for a fix and haul them into court to be convicted and sentenced. Next, send them to jail for a few months, which won't cure their addiction, then release them back into the community where they'll go right back doing what they were doing before.
Most everyone involved can see that this isn't what you'd call a brilliant law enforcement or public health strategy. In fact it's a colossal waste of limited public resources. Professionals who have worked with people struggling with substance abuse disorders have long known that locking up addicts for possessing small amounts of drugs — or for prostituting themselves to earn money to feed their habits — doesn't get to the root of the problem and often only makes it worse. What addicts really need is a way to wean themselves from their all-consuming dependence on drugs. And since very few people can do that on their own, that means getting them into treatment where they can receive the help they require.
That's why we are encouraged that the Baltimore police and the city health department are cooperating on a new program that seeks to divert low-level drug and prostitution offenders into treatment programs rather than jail. The initiative, called the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, aims to send people stopped by for minor drug and prostitution offenses on the city's West Side into therapy instead of the lockup as part of a three-year pilot program developed by local nonprofit groups.
This is not a new idea, and it's a long time coming here. It's patterned after a similar initiative in Seattle, which two years ago launched an ambitious effort to shut down open-air drug dealing and associated crime in the city's downtown core and to take the most violent offenders off the street. The Baltimore pilot project will target a slice of downtown bordered by Franklin and Pratt streets on the north and south and by Martin Luther King Boulevard and St. Paul Street on the east and west, an area that also includes the historic Lexington Market, which police have said will be a particular focus of the program.
Moreover, the announcement that Baltimore officials have committed themselves to steer at least some low-level drug and prostitution suspects — police in other parts of the city will continue to stop and detain suspected offenders — into treatment rather than jail comes more than two decades after former mayor Kurt Schmoke called for treating drug addiction as a public health issue rather than as a criminal offense. Mr. Schmoke, who now serves a president of the University of Baltimore, was roundly criticized by conservative skeptics of his day, who denounced any policy that sounded like leniency — or even simple human kindness — toward illicit drug users.
But subsequent events have more than borne out the wisdom of Mr. Schmoke's view. In the decades since, society has become much more aware of the long-term harms created by the policies of mass arrest and mass incarceration instituted during the so-called "war on drugs." City Police Commissioner Kevin Davis acknowledged as much this week when he noted that the "unnecessary incarceration" of addicts and the mentally ill does little if anything to cure their addiction — and thus little to deter future criminal behavior. It simply makes no sense to prosecute people for being addicted while leaving their addictions untreated. Not only is it expensive, ineffective and inhumane but it also leaves undisturbed the demand for illegal drugs that violent criminals are only too happy to supply.
The Baltimore drug treatment pilot program, which is funded by a consortium of private foundations, represents an important first step toward the long-term goal of diverting low-level drug and prostitution suspects into treatment all over the city. That won't be easy and it won't happen overnight, but it's vital that Baltimore begin to recapture the vast human capital the city loses every year to drug addiction and the violent crime associated with it. We only regret that it took so long to get to this point.