The Path Forward: Decriminalizing addiction through diversion

The Path Forward: Decriminalizing addiction through diversion

From the Las Vegas Optic

Editor’s note: The following is the second part in an ongoing series on the roots of addiction in San Miguel and Mora counties, and the solutions being pursued by local leaders in an effort to help those suffering from addiction.

City and county leaders are working together to launch a new program  designed to help people who are struggling with substance use by keeping them out of jail, and connecting them with resources.

The program is called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, a nationwide program that first launched in Seattle, Washington, in 2011. Under LEAD, when law enforcement officers encounter someone who is struggling with addiction, officers can connect the person with counselors who can help them with a variety of services, such as housing or addiction treatment.

The San Miguel County program is still being developed, but it is modeled on a similar program already in place in Alamosa, Colorado.

The Optic reported on Alamosa’s program last summer and Alamosa Chief of Police Ken Anderson explained that in each situation, his officers examine the facts in the case, and the person’s criminal history. If the officer feels diversion to a treatment program could be beneficial, the officer will contact a social worker and even transport the person to meet with counselors.

If the person is accepted into treatment, any charges they’re facing are deferred while they begin the program. Once a program participant completes the intake process, the diverted charges are dismissed altogether.

The decision whether to arrest someone or divert them to a treatment program is always at the officer’s discretion, and there’s a list of crimes that automatically disqualify someone from being eligible for the program — for instance, violent crimes or the sale of illegal narcotics.

In San Miguel County last week, 34 people were booked into the San Miguel County Detention Center. While some face charges like assault, battery or DWI-related offenses, many others face charges like possession of a controlled substance, disorderly conduct or criminal trespassing.

These types of charges can indicate that a person has a substance use disorder, or signal that they don’t have a place to live. Under a LEAD program, law enforcement officers have more options at their disposal to help people in the community, without arresting them. Aside from treatment programs, LEAD caseworkers can also help people get shelter, a job or transportation to another city where friends or family members can help them.

Lowering recidivism is also a major benefit of LEAD. As Alamosa began building its program, city leaders found that the courts there were issuing lots of warrants for people who’d missed court dates. They began looking at the reasons why people weren’t showing up to court, and they found that in many cases, defendants weren’t receiving notices about court dates, often because they didn’t have a permanent mailing address, or because they didn’t have a phone. As caseworkers began working with defendants to make sure they knew when they were due in court, Alamosa began to see a precipitous drop in the number of people arrested because of failure to appear warrants.

However, others had missed court dates out of fear. Appearing in a court can be a stressful and frightening experience, so LEAD case workers in Alamosa work with program participants to explain the court process ahead of time, and in some cases, they’re able to provide the judge with context about the person’s struggle with addiction and explain the steps they’ve taken toward treatment and recovery.


Making LEAD successful in SMC

Alamosa’s LEAD program has been very successful, both in keeping people out of jail and getting them into treatment, as well as reducing the number of repeat offenders. But it took nearly two years of hard work to launch the program, and it required — and still requires — a lot of funding to make it successful.

Alamosa’s program was launched in 2018 with $1.2 million from Colorado’s Marijuana Tax Cash Fund, and the program continues to be funded by taxes collected on the sale of recreational cannabis across the state.

With the use of recreational cannabis now legal for adults 21 years and older in New Mexico, the state is in a position to use taxes collected on the sale of weed, and on the licensing of dispensaries, but whether any of those funds will go to programs like LEAD has not been determined.

For now, the county will work with Pinwheel Healing Center in Rio Rancho, which has received a grant that will be used to partner with law enforcement across San Miguel County, according to Maj. Eric Padilla of the Las Vegas Police Department.

“It provides a coordinator … and there’s a counselor, but there’s still quite a few components that need to be set in place,” Padilla said. “But the city police department, New Mexico State Police and the (San Miguel County) Sheriff’s Office have attended seminars in Santa Fe.”

Padilla said the seminars, attended by top officials from each agency, focused on the core elements of the program, and highlighted the success of LEAD in other cities. Detailed training would be provided to officers at a later date, according to Padilla.

Funding is not the only barrier to success in San Miguel County though. Access to treatment is a key aspect for Alamosa’s LEAD program, a service that is not abundantly available in San Miguel County.

Earlier this year, the San Miguel County Board of Commissioners declared drug abuse, alcohol abuse and addiction a public health crisis and agreed to help establish an inpatient substance abuse treatment center.

The plan is to purchase an existing building on Hot Springs Boulevard, near the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute, and convert it into a 25-bed treatment facility that would offer a 28-day substance abuse treatment program. However, the facility also needs funding, and the planning process is still in the early stages.

In the interim, the LEAD program will have to rely on outpatient services or treatment facilities in other cities, according to Mayor Louie Trujillo. But he stressed that the LEAD program is not only about substance abuse treatment. Trujillo said caseworkers will also offer help with things like housing, education and even help with writing a resume or learning interviewing skills.

“It’s about counseling and healing opportunities, so they’re given a way to get on their feet again,” Trujillo said.


Helping people in need

LEAD programs always have skeptics, either from the general public, police officers or even from the people who could benefit most from the program.

In Alamosa, Chief Anderson said he faced resistance from some of his officers who viewed the program as a “get out of jail free card.” Conversely, some officers have met resistance to the program from people they’ve arrested, with some seeing it as a “snitch” program.

Anderson said his officers try to assure people it’s not a snitch program; it’s a program that can help them. And as for officers who feel that not arresting those who’ve committed crimes is antithetical to their mission as police officers, Anderson said he allows each officer to make the decision themselves, never forcing them to do something they’re uncomfortable with.

Fourth Judicial District Attorney Tom Clayton told the Optic that he’d spoken to officials in Alamosa and Santa Fe about LEAD, and he said his office is ready to be a partner in the program.

Clayton said he is particularly interested in offering alternatives to jail to non-violent offenders, and especially first-time offenders. He stressed, however, that the initial decision about who’s eligible for the program rests in the hands of local law enforcement.

“The frontline officers would be the ones that would make contact with these individuals,” Clayton said. “If it’s a low-level offense that’s being driven by substance abuse, let’s see what we can do to help them.”