Pittsburgh’s plans to LEAD in justice

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The War on Drugs began with President Nixon declaring drug abuse “public enemy number one." The War on Drugs — ramped up by the Reagan Administration — has overcrowded the criminal justice system, with about one-fifth of the incarcerated population serving time for drug-related charges. This decades-long war has disproportionately affected people of color and low-income communities. The criminal justice system is broken and longing for repair. Pittsburgh seems to agree.

The city of Pittsburgh is on its way to adopting law enforcement assisted diversion (LEAD), which seeks to keep people who commit certain nonviolent crimes — drug possession, prostitution, petty theft — out of the criminal justice system. Instead of taking these nonviolent offenders to jail, the LEAD program relies on the discretion of police departments to turn these individuals over to a social services coordinator. The North Side of Pittsburgh is currently piloting the program.

The criminal justice system often operates in a cyclical manner, keeping offenders behind bars due to continuous violations. The cycle demonstrates that incarceration does not help individuals with unmet behavioral health needs because many individuals fall back into old habits after their release from jail. Not only is this system ineffective, but it is also very costly. The LEAD program, developed in Seattle, WA, is meant to tackle this very issue.

So far, the LEAD program has been successful in the cities that have adopted it. In the Seattle LEAD program, participants were 58 percent less likely to be arrested after enrollment than those individuals that went through the typical criminal justice cycle. This statistic may not seem too significant, but as more cities around the country adopt LEAD programs, the rate of incarceration for low-level crimes caused by unmet behavioral needs or poverty will begin to decline. Additionally, those individuals who would have served time for such violations will receive the care they need, which will ultimately result in better functioning communities.

It is no secret that America is in the midst of an opioid crisis, with over 130 people dying from opioid overdose. In Pennsylvania, 12 lives are lost each day as a result of drug overdoses. The LEAD program can be an effective way to combat the opioid crisis as any drug-user can walk into a participating police department and ask for help without the threat of arrest.

The LEAD program places an emphasis on harm-reduction, working with mental health professionals, drug treatment providers, housing providers, and other service agencies to offer a humane alternative to the criminal justice system. Harm-reduction programs meet people where they are and provide the services necessary to help them improve their health and their lives.

Additionally, the LEAD program has had an unintended positive effect on relations between police and the community. At a time in which policy debates surrounding policing have reached a fever pitch, this unplanned effect should be celebrated. Treating people like human beings instead of criminals can actually bring positive outcomes. Who would have thought?

As Pittsburgh explores the LEAD program, surrounding police departments should consider adopting the program, because investing time and energy into improving peoples’ lives is more productive than locking them up. The LEAD program will not cure all of the ills in the criminal justice system, but points a way forward to a criminal justice revolution.