The person matters. The way law enforcement and prosecutors address individuals struggling with addiction requires a shift in thinking.
At the 2018 Tri-County Policy Summit for Local Action Opioids and Addiction, Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill explained his office’s approach to combating the opioid epidemic at an individualized level. The goals now focus on addressing the individual needs of the person including a harm reduction model at times, reducing the disproportionate number of persons of color being arrested and referred to the criminal justice system and reducing future criminal behavior of people engaged in low level drug offenses.
“Local law enforcement officials are working hard to continue to ensure a fair and just public safety system not just in Multnomah County but throughout the region,” Underhill told the audience. “We have endeavored to overhaul our responses to individuals struggling with abuse and addiction in the area of controlled substances.”
During his address at the Tri-County Summit on Opioids and Addiction, Underhill talked about the “Treatment First Program.” This program applies to all Possession of a Control Substance (PCS) cases. Currently, the District Attorney’s Office charges 97% of PCS cases as a misdemeanor. The individual is then placed in a diversion program.
“We have developed a system where they participate, voluntarily, in a risk-needs assessment to help identify an individualized approach for treatment,” DA Underhill said.
The risk-needs assessment is typically done prior to the case being resolved. This assessment looks at the individual’s level of “need” for treatment and the level of “risk” for recidivism. Each person is categorized into four quadrants that includes “High Risk, High Needs; High Risk, Low Needs; Low Risk, High Needs and Low Risk, Low Needs.”
As of March 30, 2018, 1,024 people have gone through this individualized evaluation. The results show that 50% of the program’s participants are “High Risk, High Needs.”
“What that tells us, is this is a population that has needs that we must address and provide for in order to reduce the risk of recidivism,” DA Underhill said.
The treatment and services participants of the “Treatment First Program” receive are customized for each quadrant so that the person has the greatest chance at success. People who complete their services receive a dismissal or reduction of charge.
“The overarching theme of what we have put together is treatment first,” DA Underhill said. “What we want, and what we have to do, is have law enforcement and prosecutors take a step back from the punitive, sanctioned based approach of thinking and instead emphasize treatment first.”
District Attorney Underhill told attendees about a pre-booking, harm reduction diversion pilot program to address low-level drug crimes in the downtown, Old Town – Chinatown area of Portland. The LEAD® program, which stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, allows officers to redirect low level offenders engaged in drug activity to services and resources specific to the needs of the person, using a harm reduction philosophy, instead of sending them to jail and ultimately facing prosecution.
There are two ways someone can participant in the LEAD® program. The first is when an officer contacts someone who is potentially eligible for the program, they reach out to the case manager at the time the offense is committed.
Participants of the LEAD® program are assigned a case manager. That person will respond to the scene of where the offense occurred and start meeting and developing a relationship with the future client. That is critically important because there isn’t ever a time delay. The client gets to meet the person they will be working with within a matter of hours to start accessing services. Participation is voluntary but requires completion of an in-depth assessment within 30-days of arrest for the case not to be filed.
The second way someone can become enrolled in the LEAD® program is through a social contact referral. This option is available to law enforcement and others who know of someone likely to engage in illegal behavior. Instead of waiting for that person to commit an offense, officers can proactively refer the individual to the LEAD® program as being high risk of future arrest for drug possession.
One of the most unique things about the LEAD® program – which is a drastic change of thinking for many in the law enforcement community – is the understanding that participants will not be penalized or denied services if they do not achieve abstinence.
“Instead, we endeavor as a goal of the program to reduce as much as possible the harm done to themselves, their loved ones and the surrounding community,” Underhill said.
Like with any new approach, there are hurdles to overcome. With the LEAD® program, many participants struggle with homelessness, mental health challenges, come from abusive homes and abusive relationships and DA Underhill said, “we recognize that.”
Since its inauguration in Multnomah County, the LEAD® program has helped nearly 100 people. There are now conversations with the Portland Police Bureau to start expanding the program outside to the area of southeast Portland, near the OMSI area. This expansion will include more training of officers who are able to work and identify people who are good candidates for the LEAD® program.
Central City Concern is the local contract provider handing the intensive case management services for LEAD® participants.
DA Underhill praised the work of case managers and law enforcement who are “looking at the person they are working with and are thinking as them as a family member or one of their own loved ones.”
That change in thinking is fostering success.
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