A different approach to addressing substance abuse

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The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) pilot that launched in January is showing early signs of success.

Modeled after LEAD in Seattle, the program offers people involved in low-level drug offenses the choice of case management instead of jail time. The goal is to emphasize harm reduction and connection to services including housing, health care and drug treatment as a way to keep people out of the criminal justice process. 

“LEAD provides law enforcement important tools to effectively address problems stemming from addiction, poverty and houselessness, which contribute to criminal behavior,” said Lieutenant Graham Phalen of the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office. “It connects offenders with human services field workers who bring an individualized 360-degree approach that meets them where they are in that moment, in ways that law enforcement cannot, and starts them on the road to reducing the harms their behaviors cause.” 

To be eligible, the individual cannot be on probation for a crime against a person, be currently participating in a Clackamas Specialty Court or be involved in the sales of a substance. If the individual completes the in-depth assessment and intake meeting with a case manager, there will be no criminal charges filed on them. 

"This model treats substance use disorders as the chronic medical conditions we know them to be, rather than as a moral failing or criminal enterprise," said Central City Concern LEAD Program Manager Erica Thygesen. "When individuals are offered an alternative to jail, they are more likely to be successful in making needed changes. Individuals and communities are safer and healthier when people have options for care and connection." 

The county contracts with Central City Concern, whose case managers have lived experience. They assess the individuals and submit a report to a team made up of representatives from the county's Health, Housing, and Human Services Department, Sheriff’s Office, and the District Attorney's Office. If the committee finds they are eligible for the program, the case managers then become personal advocates for their clients, helping them access services including housing and health care. 

“We’re trying to impact the lives of people who have been involved in the criminal justice system for a long time. LEAD gives us the ability to take those folks off the street in a positive way,” said Bill Stewart, Community Prosecutor with the DA’s Office. 

Since the pilot program began, 68 people have enrolled in the program. Of them, 27 identified shelter as a need. 22 of those people have had their shelter needs met, and six people have secured permanent housing. 

“LEAD is literally changing folk's lives,” said Vahid Brown, Housing Policy Coordinator. “There are people that have repeatedly been through the criminal justice system and now they are inside an apartment, working on employment, and have connections with recovery and health resources. That’s never going to happen for someone that is constantly being arrested for being in public and having an addiction issue.” 
The county plans to continue the pilot program, and hopes to expand to other areas of the county in the future.