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LEAD program offers successful alternative to drug prosecutions

Is the drug problem in America a criminal justice issue or a public health crisis? The answer to that question depends on who you ask. But more importantly, the answer to that question has huge implications for how Wisconsin and the federal government should be responding to drug abuse and drug offenses.

For nearly all of U.S. history, drug abuse has been treated as a criminal justice issue. And attempts to solve the problem through heavy-handed prosecution and incarceration have led to a prison population larger than those in any other nation. Meanwhile, drug use and abuse continue to be a major problem. Is there a better way to address drug offenses?

Many believe that the answer is "yes," and one approach in particular is getting a lot of positive attention. Starting in 2011, the city of Seattle launched a program called "Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion," or LEAD. According to a press release from the Drug Policy Alliance, the program focuses on harm reduction rather than prosecution.

The press release explains that "under LEAD, police officers exercise discretion to divert individuals for certain criminal offenses (including low-level drug sales) to a case manager and a comprehensive network of services, instead of booking them to jail and initiating the standard criminal justice process." In other words, LEAD seeks to offer help for the underlying factors that influence drug use rather than just punishing offenders.

So how well does this work? According to the results of an independent review of the program, recidivism for drug crimes has declined by 60 percent. Under the current prosecution model, it is very common for drug offenders to reoffend upon release. In light of this, a 60 percent reduction in recidivism is especially impressive.

A number of major cities around the United States have seen Seattle's success with LEAD and are considering implementing similar programs. Hopefully, Wisconsin law enforcement agencies will recognize a good idea when they see it.

Source: The Drug Policy Alliance, "Report: Seattle's New Approach to Low-Level Drug Offenses Produces Nearly 60% Reduction in Recidivism," press release, April 8, 2015

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