Waynesville joins Fayetteville in offering alternative; others across NC may follow

The cycle of arrest, incarceration, release and re-arrest has been a controversial outcome of drug enforcement policy for decades. Alleged drug users are arrested for a range of crimes — possession of drugs, property-related crimes or for engaging in sex work to support their habits — and are typically sentenced to probation or jail time. Recidivism rates are more than 75 percent nationally for drug offenders, according to data from the federal government.

A new law enforcement and mental health program is being developed in Waynesville with a goal of stopping that cycle and offering drug users treatment instead of jail time. The Haywood County town is the latest to adopt the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, program in North Carolina. It is designed to help a drug user get into treatment at the time of their first interaction with a law enforcement officer. That officer has the discretion to offer a suspect the chance to participate in a “community-based, harm-reduction intervention” instead of being booked on criminal charges. The suspect, now a client, is referred into a case management program where they have access to drug treatment and other support services.

I have had some very frank discussions with our officers about the program and I think, across the board, officers see that we’re not stopping that cycle of addiction every time we take someone to the magistrate’s office in handcuffs when they’re committing crimes solely for the purpose of feeding that addiction,” said Waynesville Chief of Police Bill Hollingsed. “Officers see the same people over and over again. If we can stop the cycle of addiction, we can stop the cycle of crime.”

Hollingsed said Waynesville plans to launch the LEAD program in the middle of February with five or six participants. Several candidates for the program have already been identified.

He told Carolina Public Press that his officers and other public officials in the Haywood County town have been overwhelmingly supportive of the program, despite it bucking years upon years of law enforcement principles and mentality.

First developed in 2011 in Seattle, Washington, the program is a collaboration among police, prosecutors, civil rights advocates, public defenders, political leaders, mental health and drug treatment providers, housing providers and other service agencies, and business and neighborhood leaders to address a burgeoning public health crisis of drug use, particularly opioids, according to the LEAD National Support Bureau.

North Carolina health officials report that 12,000 residents in died from opioid-related overdoses between 1999 and 2016, going on to say that the state is experiencing an “opioid epidemic.” In November, Buncombe County officials filed a federal lawsuit accusing opioid drug manufacturers and distributors of deliberately creating a public health epidemic in order to increase profits.

Not every suspect is eligible to participate in a LEAD program; law enforcement officials and prosecutors set the criteria for each jurisdiction, along with input from advocacy organizations about best practices.

Fayetteville’s LEAD program won’t accept participants who are accused of possessing more than four grams of drugs, aren’t “amenable” to participating in the program, are accused of selling drugs “for profit above a subsistence income,” are juveniles, are suspected of exploiting minors or promoting prostitution or have been convicted of a violent crime in the past decade, according to documents from LEAD Fayetteville.

As long as the potential participant isn’t excluded based on those criteria, they aren’t arrested and are instead put in contact with a case manager immediately. The candidate then has two weeks to complete an intake assessment. If that assessment isn’t completed, charges are filed related to whatever alleged crime initiated the contact with law enforcement. Officers also have the discretion to offer participation in a LEAD program to drug users they encounter on the street, even if a crime hasn’t been committed.

Waynesville’s LEAD program is still in its infancy. Officials there recently solidified initial plans and policies and officer training will begin at the end of January, according to Melissia Larson, the LEAD coordinator with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. Larson’s organization, which advocates for “a range of public health policies designed to reduce the harmful consequences associated with drug use, sex work and other high risk activities,” including needle exchanges, access to overdose-reversal drugs and drug treatment, is helping several cities across North Carolina develop and implement LEAD programs.

Larson said some cities are open to the idea of a LEAD program in their area, while others aren’t. Larson said Wilmington, Statesville and Hickory are each considering or implementing some form of a LEAD program.

We’ve spent a lot of time over the past several years doing presentations,” Larson said. “Sometimes we get people who say ‘You should come to so-and-so county.’ And then they’re not ready. Sometimes we go to other counties and they’re ready. It’s definitely a cultural shift within the law enforcement community to use that discretion that they’re granted by the state to use. People are better served in the community receiving services, rather than taking them over to the jail.”

The task of measuring the outcomes of a program like LEAD poses its own set of challenges. An independent study of the Seattle LEAD program three years after its implementation found that participants were “58 percent less likely to be arrested after enrollment in the program, compared to a control group that went through the ‘system as usual’ criminal justice processing,” according to the LEAD National Support Bureau. Abstinence from drugs isn’t a requirement under the principles of harm reduction, and LEAD programs “(recognize) that drug misuse is a complex problem and people need to be reached where they currently are in their lives,” according to a 2015 report about LEAD programs from the Drug Policy Alliance.

Larson said success in the battle against addiction takes many forms, but described a participant in the Fayetteville LEAD program, which is the first and largest in North Carolina with roughly 20 participants, who was previously living in a hotel where there was a lot of drug activity. Larson said the woman recognized that the environment wasn’t ideal for her situation and, with assistance through the LEAD program, moved to a one-bedroom apartment and was proud to have made her rent payments, while also remaining clean.

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Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email info@carolinapublicpress.org or call 828-774-5290.

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