BANGOR, Maine — When people become addicted to drugs, it sometimes leads to a life of crime, which can result in arrests and time behind bars, local law enforcement officials say.
It’s a repeating cycle that the Down East AIDS Network and Health Equity Alliance hopes to change with the creation of a law enforcement assisted diversion program for those with substance abuse problems, according to Executive Director Kenney Miller.
The Health Equity Alliance is a regional public health agency that expanded into the greater Bangor area in July 2014 when it adopted the Eastern Maine AIDS Network. The diversion program is a new approach to address substance abuse in the state of Maine and will establish a partnership with available Bangor-area resources that police can use in order to help those who use drugs find a different path, Miller said.
He announced a $188,000 diversion program planning grant at Tuesday’s drug summit in Bangor, hosted by the city and the Community Health Leadership Board.
“We’ll be working closely with the City of Bangor and Bangor Police Department, the medical community and social service agencies as well as a host of other stakeholders,” Miller said in an email. “The end goal is to establish an alternative to punitive approaches to drug use.”
While there are community-based services to help drug addicts in the area, there is no program established for law enforcement to link to those programs, “hence the reason for the grant,” Bangor Police Chief Mark Hathaway said Wednesday in an email.
“The planning grant that Kenny Miller at Down East AIDS Network and the Health Equity Alliance has received is in fact to be used to determine what type of program best fits for our regional needs and how do we ensure program sustainability,” Hathaway said.
Specific details about how the money will be spent were not available Wednesday. Messages left for Miller were not immediately returned.
The plan is to follow in the footsteps of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program based in Seattle, Washington, launched in 2011, which is considered to be one of the most innovative drug policy programs in the country, Miller said.
“It’s a pre-booking diversion program,” he said.
The program allows law enforcement officers to divert people arrested for low-level drug-related offenses into community-based services instead of sending them to jail, Miller told those who attended the forum, including Bangor’s police chief.
“We recognize that we serve a regional population that, in many instances, suffers from varying levels of addiction,” Hathaway said Wednesday. “This is a public health issue in the Bangor region, across our state and throughout our country. This is an opportunity for us to work with others, who specialize in the field of addiction, toward a collective goal of finding a sustainable solution for our region.”
The grant comes from the Open Society Foundations, formerly the Open Society Institute, a foundation created by philanthropist George Soros “to build vibrant and tolerant societies whose governments are accountable and open to the participation of all people,” its website states.
The Health Equity Alliance is one of seven organizations from across the country awarded $1.4 million in funds under Open Society’s Drug Policy Project. The Los Angeles city attorney’s office, the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, the Council of Southeast Pennsylvania, and the Racial Justice Action Center of Atlanta are other awardees.
Early evaluations have shown that Seattle’s pre-booking diversion program “reduces recidivism and improves the lives of people who use and sell drugs,” a news release about the grant states.
Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton said recently that his predecessor, former Sheriff Glenn Ross, created a diversion program for inmates who come through the doors at Penobscot County Jail suffering from drug addiction and/or mental illness that connects them with local resources to help them get back on their feet.
One entity cannot do it alone, he said, which was a sentiment expressed at the drug summit, where Community Health Leadership Board facilitator Laura Mitchell outlined the group’s Constellation Model of Care, supported by community-based services available in Bangor.
“We have tried many approaches in the past, and our belief is that it will take a multifaceted approach involving the entire community,” Patty Hamilton, Bangor’s public health director, said in the released statement. “Working together we can make real and meaningful progress.”
Hathaway gave a briefing to new city councilors in November and told them that nearly all of the city’s property crimes are drug-related, according to former state legislator and newly elected Councilor Joe Perry.
“There is no doubt that Bangor has a serious, serious drug problem,” Perry said after hearing the police chief’s report.
Kima Joy Taylor, Open Society Foundations’ Drug Policy Project director, said in the news release that the purpose of the program is about more than just giving people alternatives to jail.
“It is about improving the whole health of individuals,” she said.