Everyone is talking about diversion from the criminal justice system, and I mean everyone, from the most severe critics of the police to the police themselves.
Rev. Alexander Sharp of Clergy for a New Drug Policy calls diversion a “quiet revolution” and points out that in many places it’s being led by law enforcement officials, particularly in small towns and rural areas hit hard by the opioid crisis.
Black Lives Matter and other community groups give a detailed proposal for a citywide pre-arrest diversion program designed with community and human service leaders as part of their recommendation for a consent decree with the Chicago Police Department.
The Chicago Police Department has concluded a pilot diversion program offering the option of treatment rather than prosecution and jail for people arrested for buying and selling heroin. Now it is preparing to roll out a similar district-wide program involving patrol officers as well as narcotics units, with the goal of expanding citywide.
The numbers in the pilot weren’t huge – about 80 people accepted the treatment option out of 87 arrested during the period studied – and participation and recidivism rates could have been better. But for many of the individuals who were helped, it made a difference.
The potential is much greater if the concept of diversion is expanded to “deflection,” said Jac Charlier, national director of justice initiatives at Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, based in Chicago.
Deflection is a “formalized relationship between police and behavioral health services in a community” (including housing providers, mental health services and substance abuse treatment) that gives officers a third option between making an arrest and “just driving away,” he said. Charlier points out that 80 percent of police calls “are not crime related, they’re social service calls,” and no arrests are made in an even higher proportion of calls. But officers often know who needs help, especially when they’re “seeing the same person over and over.”
The goal is to offer help to people before they are in crisis, Charlier said. The key is a “warm hand-off,” he said, an immediate connection with a treatment provider who may meet an officer and an individual who wants help on the scene or at an emergency room. A referral to an appointment two or three weeks later “is probably not going to help.”
He calls deflection “a game changer” both for improving communities and for improving police-community relations.
There are many existing programs that we know stabilize communities and prevent violence. But they are never brought to scale or funded sustainably. Instead we continue to pour money into arresting and imprisoning people.
The question is whether our top elected officials have the political will to provide the resources needed to bring it to scale.
A bill backed by TASC to authorize police departments in Illinois to establish programs to “facilitate connections to community based behavioral health interventions” recently passed the state Senate and is expected to be approved by the House this month.
Out of 18,000 police departments in the United States, about 500 are known to be doing some form of deflection, Charlier says. Most programs have been in place for less than two years.
Police departments can generally implement these programs with some change in policy and training but without additional funding, he said. The challenge is on the service side.
Not only is it a change for service providers used to working regular hours in an office, who now must be available 24/7 and out on the streets. At a certain point, as it scales up, the program will run up against the lack of sufficient resources.
“No community in the United States has sufficient behavioral health services,” said Charlier. He points to parole agencies which currently partner with substance treatment services, and which generally “cap programs at artificial levels based on the availability of services.”
Chicago has many more service providers than many other localities, offering the possibility of a broad web of services. But their capacity is far from enough to meet the need. It doesn’t help that Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed six mental health clinics in his first budget.
“At every level of government – at the federal level, the state level, Cook County, the city – dollars that go for human services have been on a downward trajectory for well over ten years,” said Judith Gethner, executive director of Illinois Partners for Human Services.
As a society we’re moving quickly toward a consensus that the war on drugs and mass incarceration has been a failure. But a new direction will require radically new priorities. Our current leaders don’t seem willing to take up that challenge. It’s up to us to push them to do so, or to replace them.