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.