Pubdate: Thu, 14 Jul 2016
Source: Portland Mercury (OR)
Copyright: 2016 The Portland Mercury
Author: Dirk VanderHart


Cops and Prosecutors Are Embracing a Radical Idea: Not Filing Drug 
Possession Cases

HERE'S THE DEAL: People are using drugs in this city, despite decades 
of law enforcement's best efforts.

That fight has landed thousands of people in jail and prison-far too 
many of them people of color. It's created hardships for Portlanders 
who need jobs and a place to stay, but find that a criminal record 
has closed the door to those things. It's led to tensions between 
police and communities of color that are playing out-vividly, 
tragically-every day around the country.

What it hasn't done is stopped drug use, in this city or anywhere 
else. So for the first time, Portland law enforcement is on the verge 
of a fairly novel change in the way it treats that drug use.

It's going to accept it.

In coming months, Portland's set to become the latest city to 
experiment with an innovative strategy called Law Enforcement 
Assisted Diversion (LEAD) aimed at easing legal consequences for drug users.

Pioneered in Seattle in 2011, LEAD gives cops new leeway when they 
come across someone holding small amounts of meth, cocaine, or 
heroin. Rather than booking that person into jail, or turning a blind 
eye, police in LEAD cities can opt to get them help, ushering 
offenders to social services workers who can offer resources like job 
placement, counseling, and housing-all without a criminal charge ever 
being filed.

"We're going to try to work with you," says Multnomah County District 
Attorney Rod Underhill, who's embraced LEAD in recent months and 
helped shepherd it forward in Multnomah County. "There's an increased 
tolerance and just this awareness: People who are addicted to these 
substances are going to relapse."

The concept is part of a "harm reduction" movement playing out across 
the country. Rather than penalizing and punishing people into 
quitting drugs-which doesn't work-programs like LEAD accept that 
people are using, but seek to minimize fallout from that use (jail 
crowding, overdoses, street crime).

Notably, the program that the prosecutor, police chief, and a host of 
other instrumental local officials are lining up behind would be the 
first formal harm reduction-style policy for the city's justice 
system. A draft policy memo [PDF] on the effort specifically notes 
that participants "will not be penalized or denied services if they 
do not achieve abstinence."

"A lot of it is a little bit counterintuitive to people," says Andy 
Ko, executive director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, 
which has been arguing for a LEAD-style program in Portland since 
2014. "You can't just say to someone, 'You will stop using drugs.' 
Addiction isn't like that. Recovery from addiction isn't like that."

Ko was working for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington 
when LEAD got its start in Seattle, so he's biased. But independent 
research behind that program speaks for itself.

Studies by researchers at the University of Washington suggest that 
people who participated in the LEAD program were 60 percent less 
likely to be arrested in the six months after enrolling, and had 
about the same lowered odds long term. It showed that participants-82 
percent of whom were homeless-were far more likely to obtain housing 
after a LEAD referral. And in Seattle, folks who entered the program 
cost the criminal justice system a lot less than people who didn't.

In Portland, a central focus for Underhill and others is reducing the 
embarrassing racial disparity in arrests that plagues the county. A 
report issued earlier this year by the John D. and Catherine T. 
MacArthur Foundation found that, overall, black people are six times 
more likely than whites to be incarcerated in Multnomah County.

"There is an extremely high disproportionate number of people of 
color, men of color, being arrested for drug-related offenses," 
Underhill says. "Add to that that many of these offenses are 
felonies. What can we do to do better?"

Multnomah County's program, as laid out in a June 22 memo from 
Underhill's office, would be centered on two parts of the city: "high 
pedestrian areas" that encompass the whole of downtown (including Old 
Town) and the Lloyd District, where a lot of drug activity has 
historically been centered.

Once underway, police who arrest people with fewer than 10 grams of 
cocaine or meth, and fewer than five grams of heroin, would have the 
option of bringing them to social services workers to be screened for 
LEAD, rather than to jail. Participation in the program is completely 
voluntary, but there's a big upside: Once a person is accepted, 
potential criminal charges disappear. No need to set foot in a courthouse.

Referrals wouldn't just be contingent on arrest, either. Cops could 
also point someone to LEAD if they think he or she is "at high risk 
of arrest in the future" for eligible drug offenses.

"Even in situations where a police officer has probable cause to make 
an arrest but does not, the officer may still refer the person to a 
LEAD caseworker," the memo says.

The model, then, places a lot of importance on police buy-in. That 
could have proven problematic given recent wholesale changes in 
leadership at the Portland Police Bureau, but new Police Chief Mike 
Marshman tells the Mercury he's "fully supportive" of the idea.

"We'll move forward," Marshman says.

Officials have been seriously eyeing a program like this for months, 
but one effort died in May, when city commissioners shot down Mayor 
Charlie Hales' proposal for a business tax hike. Hales wanted to use 
some of the tax money for a program he called HEART (short for 
Homeless Engagement Alternatives, Resources, and Treatment), which 
took the LEAD model, but folded in crimes associated with 
homelessness, like drinking in public, public urination, and illegal camping.

That approach was aimed at pushing homeless Portlanders toward 
services, but it raised concerns from both officials and advocates of 
the LEAD concept.

"It seemed we were going in the wrong direction-that we were using 
the criminal justice system to address homelessness" says Ko.

With Hales' money out of the picture, the effort fell to Multnomah 
County Chair Deborah Kafoury, who put $800,000 from her own budget 
toward getting LEAD up and running. Combined with roughly $200,000 in 
grant money, the program has $1 million to play with during a 
yearlong pilot period. That money will largely go toward paying for 
social services for up to 300 people at a time, Underhill says.

Advocates say the program should still have a big impact on the 
city's homeless. Remember: The vast majority of those who've been 
referred through Seattle's nearly identical program are on the streets.

"Folks that LEAD works with are people who are spectacularly 
marginalized and disenfranchised," says Kris Nyrop, who advocates 
LEAD around the country through his work with the Seattle-based 
Public Defender Association. "A lot of our folks want treatment and 
they wouldn't have the foggiest idea how to get treatment. Some folks 
are veterans eligible for [federal] benefits but they don't know how."

Plenty of cities around the country are looking into LEAD-Santa Fe, 
New Mexico, and Albany, New York recently launched their own 
programs-but Portland, with the universal buy-in of influential 
officials, is moving far faster than most. If the city gets a pilot 
up and running later this year, as planned, it'll be the 
second-largest city in the country to do so, after Seattle.

And if it's done well, advocates like Nyrop say it can go a long 
waytoward repairing the fragile or toxic relationships cops have with 
some communities.

"People say, 'Whenever I saw officer so-and-so, I would hide. Now I 
go up and talk to him or her,'" Nyrop says. "If the only tool a 
police officer has is arrest, then that's the tool they're going to 
use. LEAD gives them a concrete, other thing that they can do."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom