Four years ago, police officers and prosecutors in Seattle decided they’d had enough of the usual ways of fighting the war on drugs.
The police were tired of arresting the same drug users and prostitutes again and again, and the prosecutors had run out of money to keep putting people in jail. So the police department, the prosecutor’s office, and the city’s elected leaders decided to try something radically different.
With the approval of Seattle prosecutors and politicians, the police began directing repeat drug offenders to social-service workers who offered to help them pay for rent and school and referred them to business owners who were willing to hire people with criminal backgrounds.
The police weren’t entirely hopeful that the strategy would pan out. But with a growing number of neighborhood leaders and business owners demanding safer, quieter streets, they had little choice but to try something new.
Today, their doubts are giving way to a growing confidence that they're onto something significant. "People we’ve dealt with over and over and over again are getting treatment and getting into housing and getting jobs," said Lt. Deanna Nollette, a supervisor in the police department. "It's a pretty big surprise.”
“Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion,” or LEAD, as the public-safety strategy is known in Seattle, is just one of a fast-growing number of alternatives to the traditional "tough on crime" approach that has defined America's drug war for four decades. Lawmakers throughout the country have increasingly turned to these strategies to deflect the steep costs of incarcerating the soaring population of drug offenders.
Some of these alternatives are more punitive than others, and policy experts and prison-reform advocates disagree on the best way to treat drug offenders. But taken as a whole, these alternatives represent a major shift in America's response to illegal drug use.
"As someone who has been in this now for 25 years, and thought that change was glacial, never mind incremental, what has happened recently is extraordinary," said Howard Josepher, the founder of Exponents, a 25-year-old drug-abuse treatment program in New York City.
In Texas, legislators have sharply increased investments in treatment programs and in drug courts -– specialized judicial systems whose judges can order drug offenders to undergo treatment as an alternative to jail. In California, where the prisons are so crowded that the state has been ordered by a federal court to reduce the prison population by thousands of inmates, counties have been granted an expanded role in deciding whether to lock up low-level offenders or connect them with drug counselors. From New York to Arkansas to Florida, states have seen their prison populations decline after years of growth.
The burgeoning availability of these alternatives is largely born out of necessity. Since the mid-1970s, when lawmakers first began enacting tough anti-drug policies that have collectively come to be known as the "war on drugs," the number of people behind bars has increased fivefold, peaking at 2.2 million in 2010. Drug offenses accounted for much of the surge. From 1980 to 2010, the number of those incarcerated on drug charges shot up from 41,000 to more than a half-million.
Criminal justice advocates have long decried the punitive laws behind this trend, stressing the disproportionately heavy toll exacted on racial and ethnic minorities, who make up more than 60 percent of the prison population, despite using drugs and committing crimes at a rate similar to whites.
But only in recent years have lawmakers thrown their weight behind serious reform efforts. And while most of these calls for changes have come from statehouses and county headquarters, federal government officials have begun adding their voices to the chorus of reformers. In recent months, members of Congress from both parties have teamed up to introduce legislation that would reduce penalties for nonviolent drug offenders. And last week, in what has widely been hailed as a historic announcement, Attorney General Eric Holder declared that the Justice Department would do its part to cut down on severe sentences for those convicted of nonviolent drug crimes.
Some of the most striking changes have unfolded in places not always associated with progressive reforms. In Texas, for example, lawmakers have cut billions of dollars from the prison system, while investing hundreds of millions in drug courts and in counseling programs that aim to help people recover from drug addictions and get their lives under control. Proponents point out that the changes haven’t reversed the state’s decades of declining crime rates:
From 2007, the first year of the shift, to 2011, the most recent year for which detailed data is available, the number of violent crimes in Texas dropped by nearly 20,000, and property crimes fell by five times as much. The state authorized the closing of one prison in 2011 and two more this year.
In Georgia, meanwhile, where 1 out of every 13 adults are either on probation, parole, or behind bars, lawmakers have passed a reform package that expands the state's treatment programs, drug courts, and the use of electronic monitoring as an substitute for prison time. States that include South Carolina and Kansas have adopted similar measures.
Not everyone is on board with these changes, however. "Probably the biggest obstacle to these reforms is what I would call establishment politicians and officeholders, and this really means on the left or on the right," said Vikrant Reddy, a policy analyst with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin. "I think there are still politicians who haven’t broken free of the thinking of the past. They don’t seem to understand that there has been a sea change among American voters, who don’t always feel that incarceration is the best tack when it comes to what we do about low-level nonviolent crime."
Another obstacle to the universal adoption of these reforms is the continued scarcity of funding for programs that treat addiction. "There aren't a lot of open slots," said Doug McVay, a drug policy expert and the editor of the online book Drug War Facts. "And we've chosen to put money into cleaning up the mess, rather than trying to make things better so that there isn't a mess is in the first place."
Yet, for those in the growing ranks of reformers -– a loose alliance that spans the political spectrum from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) to California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) -– the debate is no longer over whether to change the country's drug policies, but how. At the center of the conversation is the proliferation of drug courts. While conservatives and many liberals see the expansion of these courts as key to reform, libertarians and some on the left say society's response to drug abuse should take place outside the courthouse altogether.
Seattle's LEAD program, some reformers say, could prove to be a pioneering example of how police departments can help accomplish this goal. Although results from a study of the program aren't finished, cities from San Francisco to New York have already reached out to the program's supervisors for guidance.
Lisa Daugaard, a longtime public defender and one of the program's coordinators, likened LEAD to a drug court "without the stigma and costs of court involvement." Unlike most drug courts, she said, the program doesn't require participants to stay off drugs or even seek treatment. "LEAD is not only for people who are involved in drug activities because of addiction," she noted. "Some are involved for a wage."
About half the program's participants end up accepting some form of treatment, but they do so voluntarily, Daugaard said, without facing any pressure from judges or prosecutors. “It’s not that we’re indifferent about people moving toward sobriety,” she said. “It’s that requiring that is not the best way to engage people.”
Levi Hoagland, a 34-year-old former high school football star who is preparing to end his year-long stay at a California rehabilitation center, can see the advantages of both the drug court system and the less punitive approach championed by the likes of Daugaard. Several years ago, while suffering from mental breakdown brought on by a methamphetamine binge, he deliberately rammed his car into a parked van and ended up in jail, where he agreed to enter a substance-abuse treatment program under the supervision of a drug court judge.
Some of the more hardened criminals in the jail scoffed at the idea, Hoagland said. But he was ready for a change.
"I couldn’t listen to a guy who's got the word 'guilty' tattooed across his back," Hoagland said.
Now, as he gets ready to assimilate back into the outside world, he is wary of the obstacles faced by those who have run afoul of the criminal justice system. Like many other Californians, Hoagland is ineligible for food stamps because of the state's lifetime ban on applicants with past felony convictions, and he's concerned about how his past may look to prospective employers.
Still, it was his brush with the criminal justice system that caused him to seek treatment. And getting sober, he said, has been the "miracle of my life."
"I have two beautiful children and they used to be the most important thing in the world to me, but that’s changed," Hoagland said. "The most important thing for me today is to stay clean and sober, and that allows me to be a dad to somebody."
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