A new program from the Baltimore City Police Department aims to reduce the number of people spending time in jail due to low-level drug offenses.
The program is called "Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion," or LEAD.
"LEAD provides our officers with an alternative to arresting the same person over and over when we know that person needs help," said Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis. "Baltimore has an entrenched opioid addiction epidemic and we think it's time to invest in a public-health approach instead of a criminal approach. We're also hopeful that this will be another step in restoring more positive relationships between law enforcement and the community."
Police can refer individuals suspected of low-level drug or prostitution crimes to case managers for drug treatment, mental health services and housing aid.
Individuals facing arrest can choose not to participate in LEAD, in which case they would go through the normal criminal justice process.
Baltimore Crisis Response Inc. will operate the case management program with oversight by Behavioral Health System Baltimore. Case managers and clinicians with experience assessing clients' need for substance use and mental health services will help participants access a range of appropriate services.
In Baltimore City, 24,887 individuals have an opioid use disorder, and one out of every three Maryland residents incarcerated in state prison comes from Baltimore, many for low-level drug crimes. During the first nine months of 2016, 342 people died of a heroin overdose in Baltimore City.
"Far too many people who have substance use disorders get caught up in criminal activity," said Edgar Wiggins, Executive Director of BCRI. "Sending them into the criminal justice system and possibly jail does not address the underlying problem. It's time to try smarter approaches like LEAD to help people get back on track and reduce our jail and prison populations."
In Seattle, a 2015 study credited the LEAD program with having a significant impact: participants were 58 percent less likely to be arrested again compared to non-participants and were more likely to obtain housing, employment and legitimate income in any given month after their LEAD referral.
Baltimore is the sixth U.S. city to implement the LEAD program and is relying on a mix of public and private grant to support the pilot.