For decades, the United States has tried to punish and shame people out of drug addiction with courts, jails and criminal records. It has been massively unsuccessful, as the nationwide rise in opiate addiction over the last few years demonstrates, and few people are more aware of its failure than the police officers tasked with arresting addicts.

“We were chasing the same people over and over again,” Santa Fe Police Captain, Jerome Sanchez, told The Nation. “We learned quickly what we were doing wasn’t working.”

Sanchez is one prong of an experimental, alternative-to-incarceration program in Santa Fe called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD. It’s a big collaborative process between the Santa Fe Police Department, City Hall, nonprofit service providers, the District Attorney’s office, and public defenders to route certain individuals arrested for drug possession away from the criminal justice system and into treatment programs. The program, which is considered a pilot initiative, has three years to prove its mettle. Members of the Drug Policy Alliance of New Mexico advise the city on best practices.

Under Santa Fe’s LEAD model, people arrested for drug possession are offered the chance to be assigned an individual case manager before they’re even booked. If a person wants to opt-in, the arresting officer connects the arrestee to a case manager, who performs a brief intake. Seventy-two hours later, the case manager presents their client with an individualized treatment plan that can feature a basket of services, including drug treatment but also housing, transportation, and even employment support programs. There are no visits to the courtroom and no criminal marks meted out.

Every two weeks, case managers meet with arresting officers and the district attorney’s office to determine the status of each person with an open case, and determine next steps. Progress is measured by an array of considerations besides drug use, including overall health, family life and economic hardship. Perhaps most radical of all, participants are not punished for relapsing; in fact, it’s assumed that some may continue to use. And while the DA’s office still retains the ability to eject participants from the program and press charges, this will happen only if participants commit an egregious crime, says Emily Kaltenbach, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

To Captain Sanchez, who overseas Santa Fe’s Property Crimes Division, the program serves a practical purpose: stemming the dual rise of property crime and opiate addiction in the city. Over time, he observed that the two were intimately connected.

“Quite literally, every single person we arrested for a burglary or property crime was an addict,” Sanchez said. “We didn’t have a single burglary that wasn’t by someone with an opiate habit. Not one. It slapped me across the face.”

Because the same people were committing the same crimes over and over again, Sanchez said that he and other officers in the property crimes unit developed relationships with the offenders, recognizing their crime was a direct result of their addiction. Before LEAD, Sanchez said that his officers were cold-calling treatment providers and rehabilitative clinics in the area in the hopes of countering the addicts’ underlying motivation for crime.

Eventually, former Santa Fe mayor David Coss summoned Sanchez and other city officials to a preliminary meeting about the LEAD program, which had been proposed to him by Kaltenbach, of the Drug Policy Alliance. There was a surprising amount of consensus for the program, said Kaltenbach, who soon reached out to officials in Seattle, where a small LEAD initiative was first piloted in 2011 and has since been expanded. Other than Santa Fe, it remains the only city where such a program exists.

“I think people were ready for something new and were willing to try it,” she told The Nation. “We had a mayor [who] wanted to address addiction through public health and public safety. We had political will from day one.”

A cost-benefit analysis by the Santa Fe Community Foundation found that LEAD could cut the $1.5 million the city spends on criminalizing drug use in half. So with wide political support, the Santa Fe City Council voted to launch its own LEAD pilot in July 2013. The program began accepting its first clients in April and, with the help of $300,000 committed by the City Council for the next three years, now has around ten participants. The LEAD task force is continuing to try to drum up additional support from both public and private sources.

Sanchez said that officers in the narcotics unit have been receptive to implementing LEAD’s referral process, but it remains to be seen how other officers will take to it (some officers in Seattle were less than enthusiastic about the experiment). Under the Santa Fe version, only people arrested with three grams or less of opiates (which includes heroin) are eligible to participate. Those in possession of more, or charged with intent to sell, are booked like normal. Training for support officers begins in October, and part of the challenge will be chipping away at the hoary belief that addiction should necessitate punishment.

A strong punishment ethos still pervades most police departments, as well as the drug courts that were once considered the progressive alternative to drug-based incarceration when they debuted some twenty-five years ago. In a drug court, defendants can avoid the normal sentencing process, but they are often required to plead guilty and enroll in a drug diversion program. These programs tend to impose rigid requirements on those accepted, including total abstinence, frequent drug tests, and mandatory meetings (which are sometimes located far from the defendant). A single misstep can result in expulsion from the program and years of jail or probation. Across the country, drug courts are still the primary alternative to drug-based incarceration.

Though the Santa Fe pilot is just getting started, both Kaltenbach and Sanchez are hopeful that it can serve as a model for other cities. Already, New York City has announced that it will be adopting its own LEAD-like initiative, a Public Health Diversion Center designed to redirect low-level offenders toward social services rather than Rikers Island. The plan is a welcome departure from the usual rush to criminalize drug addiction, but some advocates fear that it does not go far enough.

The LEAD programs in Santa Fe and Seattle specifically target criminal offenses as ways to sidestep the criminal justice process. New York’s plan, however, is designed only for those who have committed non-criminal violations; people charged with misdemeanors will not be eligible. The result is that thousands of people who might benefit from the program will be excluded, because in New York only one drug offense—marijuana possession at the lowest level—is considered a violation and not a criminal offense.

Still, the LEAD experiment is beginning to spread, and as time passes, it’s likely that more cities and towns around the country will see it as a real alternative to decades of failed policy.

Take Action: Call on Congress to End the Criminalization of the Mentally Ill

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As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. This article is part of Cities Rising, The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.