PORTLAND, Maine — A crime diversion program created in Seattle is generating local interest from a city panel on substance abuse.
“From my perspective, a pilot program would be a perfect fit for the Bayside neighborhood,” Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said March 19 as the subcommittee established by Mayor Michael Brennan considered how a derivative of Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program might be established in Portland.
Subcommittee member Chris Poulos, a law student and advocate of treating substance abuse as more a public health than law enforcement issue, has been looking at ways to start a program since January.
Details on possible costs, grant funding, shelter options and when to refer people to the program have not been worked out, although Poulos said he will have more to present when the subcommittee meets again in May.
“The idea is to find out what would work, look at the client, the individual in need,” he said. “How can we pull this person out of whatever they are trapped in?”
Poulos said his interest developed after Kris Nyrop, who works with public defenders in Seattle and surrounding King County, Washington, gave a presentation to the subcommittee on how the program works.
Known by its LEAD acronym and established in sections of Seattle in 2011, the program allows police to refer nonviolent offenders facing drug or prostitution charges to case managers who can set up housing and counseling services.
“We were looking at a whole bunch of people who were looking at a minimum of five years in jail,” Nyrop said, adding that referrals can now be made by others in social services as the program expands through the city.
Established with a grant of $950,000, Nyrop said much of the initial cost was spent on housing. But he noted the cost of incarceration is about $30,000 annually per individual.
The program has served about 250 people, and early indications are it has saved money. The program’s effectiveness is still being studied by the University of Washington.
A subcommittee consensus to try a program locally with as many as 20 people is developing, in part because diverting nonviolent offenders with substance abuse and mental health issues from the judicial system could provide them with benefits and ease the burden on taxpayers.
Using data from 2010, a 2013 study by the state Department of Health and Human Services placed an annual cost of $1.4 billion on the effects of substance abuse, with $120 million spent on law enforcement. Locally, Sauschuck and Brennan estimate 75 percent of city crime can be attributed to substance abuse.
Poulos said he prefers diversionary programs to arrests and prosecutions because of the way families can be split apart and cycles of abuse perpetuated, while a lack of treatment options leads to recidivism.
“The idea is to pull people out of the cycle of poverty, addiction and incarceration, rather than simply trying to arrest our way out of the problem,” he said.
Sauschuck said finding people who could be referred to a diversionary program would not be difficult. He said East Bayside had 125 public drinking arrests, 75 drug possession arrests, about a dozen warrant arrests and 112 total drug possession charges in 2014.
But Poulos and Sauschuck are not of one mind about when a referral could be made.
“We don’t want it to just turn into drug court,” Poulos said. “I really like keeping people out of the criminal justice system. As a taxpayer, that is where I would like to see my taxes going, that is my personal view.”
Sauschuck said it might be best to approach prisoners at the Cumberland County Jail who are nearing completion of their sentences and have been sober.
“You take them when they are clean and say, ‘We are going to give you a shot,’” he said.
The Seattle LEAD program relied on local landlords and motels to provide housing, which may not work in Portland, where the housing market is tight and expensive.
“Sober houses are not going to take these people and private landlords are not going to take them,” Poulos said.
Steve Cotreau, manager of the Portland Community Recovery Center, has been researching the program with Polous. He said independent housing may not be the best option for referrals.
“We think we need to place them in more structured homes,” Cotreau said.