When Criminal “Justice” Means Treatment, Not Crackdowns

Studies show that every dollar spent on substance use disorder treatment saves $4 in health care costs and $7 in criminal justice costs.

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Substance use disorder is a highly treatable mental health disorder.

Law enforcement officers are often the first point of contact with potential help that many people with substance use disorder have. The “War On Drugs” has put millions of people with substance use disorder behind bars instead of into treatment. Although some police departments are now just beginning to make an effort to use that “first contact” to help people rather than perpetuate a cycle of addiction.

Substance use disorder is a highly treatable mental health disorder. According to the 2016 Surgeon General’s Report, Facing Addiction in America, studies show that every dollar spent on substance use disorder treatment saves $4 in health care costs and $7 in criminal justice costs. With this in mind, police departments are prioritizing recovery over making arrests. New programs in Washington State and Pennsylvania give people with substance use disorder better options than court-ordered recovery meetings or jail time.

In Seattle, a pilot program called Law-Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) offers non-violent drug offenders treatment. Police officers work closely with case managers, rather than booking them into a criminal justice system that often just makes things worse. According to The Guardian, the concept of pre-arrest diversion where police officers have a stake in the recovery, not just the capture and punishment of offenders is unusual, but is making waves in criminal justice circles across the US.

Seattle is among several other cities, including New York, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore and Santa Fe, which are exploring or have implemented similar programs. Recently, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a similar program gives officers and ambulance crews from Susquehanna Valley and Northwest EMS brief training on addiction and recovery, and connects them with certified recovery specialists from a privately owned treatment center.

According to Lancaster Online, the recovery specialists, who have met recovery milestones and received training in how to help others, can speak over the phone, go to the scene of an overdose, or go to where someone is facing potential minor charges, to offer hope and help coordinate treatment.

Lisa Daugaard, a public defender by trade, and deputy director of the Seattle Public Defender Association, says that one aspect of criminal justice that consistently disempowers people with substance use disorder is the belligerence which often exists between defenders like herself and prosecutors and law enforcement. When public defenders’ offices are overwhelmed with petty non-violent crimes like sleeping outside, loitering, or possession of a substance, people end up sitting in jail for weeks or even months, waiting for a trial. Some people are forced to detox without medical support, which endangers their lives. Then, after trial is set, district attorneys focus on prosecution instead of justice. In many cases, these minor infractions, including non-violent drug-related crimes, are disproportionately punished. This cycle fill jails with people who would be better served with 90 days in treatment instead of 90 days behind bars.

Recovery should be available and accessible at every point of contact between people and the institutions that serve them. Withdrawal management, harm reduction, access to recovery supports, and health-focused diversion instead of automatic incarceration all free up billions of dollars in criminal justice funding and support a nation on the road to recovery.

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