Decriminalizing Addiction

Law enforcement program emphasizes recovery, not jail

By Ryan Lowery | May 21, 2020

They are struggling, often at the lowest point in their lives. Then they’re arrested. Charged with a crime, they face fines, fees and maybe even a lengthy sentence behind bars.

They come from varied backgrounds and walks of life. The events that led them into the courtroom are nuanced. Nevertheless, they face a rigid system predicated on the notion that, no matter the reasons behind their actions, those who’ve committed a crime must be punished. One rural Colorado town is rethinking this approach though.

Sandwiched between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains, Alamosa lies in the center of southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley.

Originally built around the railroad, with lines connecting passengers to Denver and Santa Fe, today, its roughly 10,000 residents enjoy well-maintained downtown streets that are lined with a mix of buildings from the late-1800s to modern storefronts. The sidewalks are clean and lined with public art installations, and on the eastern edge of downtown, the Rio Grande flows past City Hall as it twists south toward New Mexico.

Ryan Lowery Photo

Alamosa is a small community in an isolated part of the state. It is home to a public college — Adams State University — which has around 3,000 students.

Many people in Alamosa live below the poverty line, and many struggle with addiction to drugs or alcohol. These factors have contributed to a high number of property crimes, like trespassing, shoplifting and theft. City leaders are addressing these problems in a unique way though. They’ve implemented a program known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, a program that began in Seattle, Washington, in 2011.

Bringing LEAD to Alamosa

As opioid use, addiction, homelessness and crime increased, city leaders in Alamosa began searching for ways to heal the community and help those in need.

The current model of arresting people for drug possession or for sleeping someplace they shouldn’t wasn’t working, according to Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks. No matter how many arrests were made, many in the community were still fighting battles with addiction, and it resulted in the court system being overloaded with a large number of repeat offenders.

As Brooks and other city leaders searched for ways to lessen those struggles, in 2016, a group of city councilors presented the idea of LEAD, a program they’d learned about while meeting with the Colorado Municipal League, a nonprofit group that advises Colorado municipalities on a variety of issues.

Brooks and her staff began working to bring the program to Alamosa. Though they recognized it likely wasn’t a solution for all of the city’s problems, they considered it a good first step. One major hurdle stood in the way though: funding the program.

It took nearly two years, but funding the program became a reality when, in January 2018, the Office of Behavioral Health received $5.2 million from the state’s legislature — drawn from Colorado’s Marijuana Tax Cash Fund — to fund diversion programs like LEAD.

“We’re really fortunate that our council is willing to take some political risk, and to try something new,” Brooks said. “But if it wasn’t for the grant through the Office of Behavioral Health at the state level, we wouldn’t be able to afford to do this.”

With interest in the program from Alamosa’s mayor, city council, police department and the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, the City of Alamosa was selected as one of four Colorado cities to receive funding up to $575,000 per year for a LEAD pilot program.

For the first 27 months of Alamosa’s LEAD program, the city received $1.2 million in state funding, according to Brooks. Funding for the program was set to expire June 30, but the state has since extended it for at least two years.

Treatment, not incarceration

In cities across the country, police officers respond to a variety of crimes, from domestic disputes, to serious assaults and even murders. Plenty other calls involve break-ins, burglaries, shoplifting and other thefts.

Oftentimes, during an arrest for non-violent and misdemeanor crimes, police officers locate drugs or drug paraphernalia — indications that the person might struggle with addiction. Other times, officers have arrested the same person multiple times and may already know of an addiction.

When faced with this situation, officers in Alamosa have the option to arrest the person and take them to jail. But it is just that: an option. Under LEAD, the officer can also choose to refer the person to a treatment program.

According to Chief of Police Ken Anderson, while making an arrest, an officer will examine the facts in the case, and the person’s criminal history. If the officer feels diversion to a treatment program could be beneficial, the officer will contact a social worker and even transport the person to meet with counselors.

“Taking people to jail and detox just isn’t the answer all the time,” Anderson said.

All program referrals come from police officers because they have the most interaction with people in need of help, and they know their history, Anderson said.

If someone facing criminal charges is accepted into treatment, those charges are deferred while they begin the program. Once a program participant completes the intake process, the diverted charges are dismissed altogether.

The decision whether to arrest someone or divert them to a treatment program is always at the officer’s discretion, and there’s a list of crimes that automatically disqualify someone from being eligible for the program — for instance, violent crimes or the sale of illegal narcotics.

Getting help doesn’t require an arrest though. If officers know that someone is struggling with addiction, they will offer them help whenever they encounter them.

“It’s a small community,” Anderson said. “We know who needs help, and who wants help.”

Arrests decrease

Many people with an addiction to drugs or alcohol will end up spending time in jail. The reasons may be because they cannot afford bail, because they are picked up on warrants for missed court dates or because they are arrested for other crimes while awaiting trial.

This has led to crowded jails and overloaded court dockets nationwide. City leaders in Alamosa sought to ease these strains by deferring criminal charges for some people as they seek treatment for addiction.

Since implementing its LEAD program in 2018, Colorado’s 12th Judicial District has seen a precipitous drop in the number of people arrested and booked into jails, as well as a decrease in the number of arrest warrants issued for people failing to appear for court.

As the district attorney for the 12th Judicial District, Robert Willett oversees criminal prosecutions in six counties, including Alamosa County.

Aside from a high number of property crimes, felony cases were rising when Willett left town to work in Colorado Springs. By the time he returned and took the reins as district attorney, Alamosa’s LEAD program had begun to take shape, and the results were already noticeable.

“When I left Alamosa in 2016, we were at 600 felony filings in Alamosa County. When I came back in 2019, I think we were around 400 felony filings,” he said. “I don’t know if I attribute all of that drop off to (LEAD), but I would say it has had an effect, and I welcome it.”

Reducing warrants

Prior to earning a law degree, Willett spent more than 25 years in law enforcement, which gives him a detailed perspective and understanding of the criminal justice system. Willett and key staff members — Diversion Coordinator Megan Martinez and a LEAD Liaison Scott Dillon — work closely with local police, city leaders and social workers from the Center for Restorative Programs, or CRP, to help make the city’s LEAD program successful.

As Alamosa launched its LEAD program, Dillon began researching other communities with the diversion program already in place. While researching the LEAD program in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Dillon found that when program participants were strongly engaged with social workers, they were rarely arrested for committing new crimes. That’s when he began tracking recidivism rates in Alamosa, and across the 12th Judicial District.

“The more active they are with their case managers, the less they get arrested,” Dillon said. “That’s one thing the policy board has been focusing on: How to keep them engaged with their case managers. How to make sure that they’re using these resources correctly. Even though the road from there may be bumpy, if they’re making progress, that’s the biggest thing.”

As Dillon began tracking cases closely, he noticed that one of the biggest problems was warrants were being issued because people had failed to appear at their court hearings. Dillon and Martinez began working closely with LEAD program managers Carey Deacon and Clarissa Woodworth to find solutions to the problem.

The first step was to figure out why people were missing their hearings. They determined a common reason was related to how the Municipal Court notified people of upcoming court dates, which was typically done by phone using an automated message. Some program participants simply missed phone calls which resulted in a warrant being issued. Others didn’t have a cellphone or used pay-by-the-minute phones that couldn’t always accept calls, and some ignored calls from numbers they didn’t recognize.

“It’s difficult to get people to answer,” Woodworth said. “Some are worried about bill collectors, and if you don’t know who’s calling, you may not answer.”

With increased engagement, case workers were able to keep in better contact with program participants and notify them of upcoming court hearings in person or via text message.

Since going to court can be a stressful or even frightening experience, case workers are also able to explain the court process to program participants ahead of time. And according to Woodworth, once they get to court, case workers are often able to provide the judge with context of the person’s struggle with addiction, and explain the steps they’ve been taking toward treatment and recovery.

“Judges say it’s really refreshing to have some insights so that they better understand the frustrations,” Woodworth said.

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Freeing up resources

Now a nationwide and growing program, LEAD offers guidelines for cities that implement the program, but according to City Manager Heather Brooks, each city is allowed to adjust the program to best meet the needs of the community.

As Alamosa’s version of LEAD began to take shape, Brooks said she and other city leaders started to examine how many police resources were being used to arrest the same people on multiple occasions, often within hours of the first arrest.

“This use of our resources was a drag, so for us, if (LEAD) was a tool that would maybe start reducing that, and get it to where people aren’t offending because of the underlying issues that are driving them to that, then it would be a better use of our time,” Brooks said. “Not to mention the healing of your community that can happen through it as well.”

City leaders agree they’ve seen healing within the San Luis Valley, and according to Mayor Ty Coleman, it’s also helped build trust.

“Most people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care,” he said. “When you have a team like we have, they’re showing that they care by meeting people where they are. They’re showing that they care by building and establishing that trust — law enforcement, the DA’s office, our CRP team — everything that they do is showing that they’re caring by their actions.”

Brooks recognizes that not everyone in Alamosa approves of the LEAD program, with some feeling it allows criminals to avoid punishment.

“There are people who say, ‘If they did the crime, they need to do the time,’” she said. “This isn’t wiping their record clean … it’s a focus on the bigger picture: Putting them in jail isn’t getting us out of this.”

In fact, jails in the area are already experiencing extreme overcrowding. According to DA Willett, the jail in nearby Conajos County no longer accepts people with warrants from Municipal Court because it doesn’t have space for them, a problem many jails in the country are experiencing.

“You just can’t put everybody in jail. The sheriffs won’t have enough room,” Willett said. “We’ve been trying to arrest our way out of this problem for the last 30 years, and it has not worked.”

Embracing skeptics

Addiction is not a crime, yet many battling addiction end up with a criminal record because their addiction pushed them to break the law. In some cases, they might steal items from a store. In other cases, the crime they’ve committed is merely possessing the drug they’re addicted to.

The people who face this situation oftentimes live on the fringes of society, according to Andrés Guerrero, the manager of the Overdose Prevention Unit for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“A lot of them don’t have insurance, don’t have addresses, don’t have a home,” he said. “And there’s a lot of incarceration, a lot of going in and out of county jails.”

It’s something Alamosa city leaders noticed happening in their community, and they wanted to do something about it.

Under the LEAD program, when a police officer responds to a call involving a non-violent offender who may be battling addiction, that officer can choose to refer the person to a treatment program, diverting — and eventually dismissing — criminal charges against them as they begin treatment and work toward recovery.

But according to Chief of Police Ken Anderson, not all of the officers in his department have embraced the program.

“Cops don’t like change,” he said. “If you don’t go into this with open arms trying to understand why we’re doing this, you’re probably not going to accept it.”

Some officers view the program as a “get out of jail free card,” Anderson said, and therefore have been reluctant to refer people they’ve arrested to the program.

“We’ve introduced this to all our new officers,” Anderson said. “But you can’t force feed them. If you do, they won’t make a referral, plain and simple.”

Having resistance from some police officers has not derailed the program though. Allowing individual officers to make the decision whether or not to refer someone they’ve arrested to a treatment program is just part of the cooperation required to make the program a success, according to City Manager Heather Brooks.

“At all times, police maintain their discretion, as does the district attorney’s office,” Brooks said. “It’s still the officer’s decision if he or she wants to write a ticket or not. And once the ticket is written, it’s up to the district attorney’s office how they want to enforce that.”

Cooperation among many agencies is necessary in order for the program to work, according to Brooks, and in Alamosa, the program has support from the mayor’s office, the city council, the police department and the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s office. And with so many people and agencies involved, it’s natural to have differing viewpoints, according to Brooks, but they’ve made the LEAD program a success by working together and finding common ground.

“The interesting part of LEAD is that it brings people together that, per their professional backgrounds, may have very different ideas on how the criminal (justice) system should work,” Brooks said. “So we’ve got the district attorney’s office at the table, with the public defenders’ office, with our case managers, with law enforcement, but it’s an environment where everyone is respected, and it’s us working together to move our community forward.”

And while some police officers are still opposed to the program, others who once opposed it have changed their minds, according to Carey Deacon, the LEAD program manager for the city.

“We have had some that were just dead set against it,” she said. “There was one officer in particular that was like that, and then he started dealing with this person over and over again. He decided, what’s it going to hurt for me to try this? Once he tried it, it opened the floodgate for him, and now he’s a huge believer and one of our biggest advocates.”

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Removing obstacles

No matter how much support LEAD has from police officers and city leaders, it can still be difficult to convince those struggling with addiction to utilize the program, especially when police officers are involved, according to Chief Anderson. His officers have encountered a number of people who are nervous to discuss their addiction and drug use with those in law enforcement, which makes it difficult for officers to know if someone might benefit from treatment programs.

“Some individuals look at it as a snitch program, but we are not looking to gain information from you. We’re looking to help you,” he said. “We are not looking for stats. We don’t care about stats. We care about helping our community, and I think this program is probably the best thing we’ve got going.”

People battling addiction aren’t always treated well by other members of society either, and previous bad experiences can prevent them from seeking help, according to Guerrero with the Colorado Department of Public Health.

“A lot of the folks that inject drugs are treated very poorly by social services, by hospitals and by ERs,” he said. “When they feel comfortable in a place, that’s where they’re going to go for help.”

Colorado health officials have worked hard to make more of those comfortable places available to people across the state, mainly in the form of facilities known as syringe service programs. The facilities, once known as needle exchanges, now offer a much larger range of services beyond providing clean needles for safer injection. The facilities help connect people to treatment services, offer HIV and hepatitis C testing, and they can help people find housing and transportation as well.

Opening a syringe service programs facility requires approval from county leaders though, and it’s been a struggle for state officials, particularly in some of the rural communities that need the facilities the most.

Luckily for those behind the LEAD program in the San Luis Valley, county leaders in the area backed the idea of a syringe service programs facility in Alamosa, which opened its doors to the community in February 2018.

“It was a long time coming, and lots of people in Alamosa worked hard to make it happen,” Guerrero said.

LEAD and syringe service programs operate on a harm reduction model, and the model does have its critics. Guerrero said he’s been accused of enabling drug use, but he sees his role quite differently.

“I’m enabling people to stay alive until they can get the help that they need,” Guerrero said. “(Addiction) is a medical condition that can be treated successfully, if they get the chance.”

The harm reduction approach has economic benefits too, according to Guerrero, because it’s less expensive to offer treatment to those with an addiction than it is to incarcerate them.

“People’s attitudes are starting to change a little bit. They’re starting to realize that you cannot just lock people up for substance issues, because when they come out, they still have those issues,” Guerrero said. “It’s expensive, and it’s not effective.”

Accepting setbacks

Addictions are complex and as unique as the people who struggle with them. The effects of addiction are often persistent and recurring, causing those in treatment to experience setbacks as they work toward recovery.

For participants in Alamosa’s LEAD program, the road to treatment and recovery often begins when criminal charges are filed, but under the program, those seeking treatment will have their criminal charges diverted, and eventually dropped, while they get help with their addiction. And while some diversion programs require sobriety at the beginning of the program — and can even drop people from the program if they fail just one drug test — the LEAD program doesn’t have those tight constraints, according to City Manager Heather Brooks.

“They’re always in the program. They may move away or they may turn their life around and never need to be involved with law enforcement again, but we also know it’s not a straight line,” she said. “A lot of times, someone can be on the right path and then a family member dies and it sends them right back to other behaviors, and they have to rebuild again.”

If someone in the program relapses, social workers will work with them to get sober again, and continue to work toward recovery. Program participants aren’t required to be sober to begin the program either. The idea is that when someone is ready to accept help, social workers don’t want any barriers in their way.

Clarissa Woodworth, a social worker with the Center for Restorative Programs, said it’s important for program participants to know they will always have support from their LEAD caseworkers, especially during setbacks. By providing them a safe environment without judgment, they’re able to better handle setbacks and continue to work toward recovery.

“One of the nice philosophies of this program is you don’t fail,” Woodworth said. “You don’t relapse and then you’re out.”

Accepting that some people in the program will experience setbacks in their recovery is key, according to LEAD Program Manager Carey Deacon. And while a relapse is a common setback, it’s not the only one program participants experience. Some are arrested on new charges, as was the case of one of the first participants in the program, Deacon said.

The man didn’t have a job or a driver’s license when he began the program, and social workers were able to connect him with services to help him obtain both. Even with those barriers removed, he picked up new criminal charges in another county, but according to Deacon, when the judge looked at the progress he’d made in treatment, the judge dismissed the charges so he could continue working at his job, and continue working toward recovery.

While it’s important to anticipate and plan for setbacks, it’s also important to not expect them in every case, Deacon said. Some program participants flourish without setbacks, as was the case with a woman originally from California who’d lost her kids and fallen in with a group of people who introduced her to drugs.

Deacon and others with the LEAD program were able to connect her with services to help her earn a high school diploma, and to help her get back to California and reconnect with her family.

Connecting people to the services they need is the primary focus for Deacon and Woodworth, whether that need is a driver’s license, access to a cellphone, a place to live or a referral to a drug treatment facility, when someone asks for help, they want to make sure they get it.

“When someone does reach out, we don’t want them to hear ‘no,’” Woodworth said.

Success through flexibility

LEAD social workers spend much of their time in the community they serve, not behind desks in offices. By showing those in the community they care and are there to help, it’s built trust with people in the community, and it’s helped the program gain support from everyone involved, according to Mayor Ty Coleman.

“This program meets the clients — the people — where they are, and they don’t judge those people,” Coleman said. “I think that’s very important in regards to the success of the program, and in getting buy-in from the stakeholders as well.”

The 12th Judicial District Attorney’s office is a crucial stakeholder that the program needs in order to succeed, and according to Scott Dillon, LEAD liaison for the DA’s office, they are willing to collaborate with others stakeholders because the program has shown positive results, and because of the program’s flexibility.

“We’re able to change the policy … so we can get better results,” he said. “If the program is failing for a specific reason, we can make a change.”

And while small towns and rural counties are often hampered by their size, Brooks, the city manager, said she feels the small size of Alamosa is an asset because it allowed them to assemble a great team quicker than a larger city could have.

As a result of the efforts of city leaders, Brooks said they’ve seen great results from the program, and that local and state partners are supportive and have taken note that LEAD is making a difference.

Though while it’s great to have recognition from others, Brooks said the program is ultimately about helping people in need.

“We want them to get sober,” she said. “When you are really working with people to help them improve and make better choices, it heals not only them, but their loved ones, their friends and the community.”

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, solutionsjournalism.org.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Optic.