Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion: An Alternative to Mass Incarceration

March 20, 2015
Guest Post

by Christopher R. Poulos, President, ACS University of Maine School of Law Student Chapter; Chair, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program Subcommittee, City of Portland, Maine.

The United States now has more incarcerated citizens both in raw numbers and per capita than any other nation on Earth. Over two million people are currently incarcerated in the United States, up from around 200,000 as recently as 1975. The vast majority of prisoners are economically disadvantaged and lack college degrees, and many did not graduate from high school. The number of minorities incarcerated, particularly black males, is disproportionately larger than their percentage of the general population. Liberals – and now conservatives, including the Koch brothers and Newt Gingrich – are finally calling attention to the long ignored issue of mass incarceration. The current focus on this matter by both ends of the political spectrum makes this a ripe time for positive change.

One way to immediately begin addressing the daunting issue of criminal justice reform generally – and mass incarceration specifically – is to divert eligible low-level offenders away from the criminal justice process entirely. The program is called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), and one of its many objectives is to transform and transcend the relationship between police and the residents they serve into something more positive and less adversarial. The idea began in Seattle and has also taken root in Santa Fe.

The program we are developing in Portland, Maine, will be the nation’s third. Instead of low-level, often drug-addicted offenders being sent to jail, they are immediately connected with an intensive case manager. The initial meeting, occurring directly following arrest, helps determine why the person is involved in the activities they are involved in and identifies what we can do to help lift the individual out of the situation. Instead of jailing the individual, we ask them how we can help.

Participants can also enter the program through “social contact,” where an officer and/or case manager approaches someone known to be in need and offers the program’s resources without waiting for an arrest. Available resources for LEAD participants include housing, mental health and substance abuse treatment, vocational training, education, and, when appropriate, direct connection with members of the recovery community who can share their own experiences and solutions.

LEAD targets the people unable to meet the often stringent requirements of “drug court” programs. Among the differences between LEAD and drug courts is that with LEAD, judicial resources are preserved for more serious offenses. The diversion is immediate and not contingent upon a guilty plea or numerous other conditions. The program is focused on providing low barriers to entry and not only emphasizes harm reduction principles, but also encourages long-term solutions and upward social mobility. Our clients are the people who have fallen through the cracks of society and ended up on the streets or in unsafe housing. The purpose of LEAD is to break the cycle of poverty, addiction, crime and incarceration.

We have found that an approach to addiction based solely on law enforcement has proven wildly unsuccessful. For example, Bureau of Justice Statistics studies have found remarkably high recidivism rates among individuals released from prison. The idea and resulting policy that simply incarcerating people in “correctional facilities” will rehabilitate them and “correct” their behavior has, to put it simply, failed. The driving factor behind the dramatic increase in incarceration over the last 30 years or so has been the War on Drugs. We propose that for low-level offenders, the criminal justice system and incarceration is not the solution. Instead, creating individual plans to break the cycle of poverty and addiction within a larger program will better serve everyone involved, including individual communities and the nation as a whole. Our project strives to improve both public safety and participants’ lives; the two goals are not mutually exclusive.

Following a recent visit by White House Director of National Drug Control Policy Michael Botticelli, an article was written outlining some of our current work and goals. When leaders in law enforcement and at the Office of National Drug Control Policy are calling for and supporting progressive change, the time has come to act.