It’s a new day in Atlanta.
Two monumental political shifts have occurred. The Atlanta city council approved ordinance 17-O-1152, which makes the possession of marijuana under one ounce a non-arrestable offense and lowers the fine to a maximum ticket of $75. It was signed into law by current Mayor Kasim Reed. In addition to this incredible leap forward, a pre-arrest diversion initiative modeled after Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs in Seattle, WA, Santa Fe, NM, Albany, NY and Fayetteville, NC launched in Midtown Atlanta.
Over the next two years, the $2.2 million pilot program seeks to help 150 people who risk being arrested for offenses related to poverty and homelessness. Participants who have spent years or decades cycling through the criminal justice system now have the opportunity to avoid the system altogether. This is a chance to regain their footing without the overwhelming and unavoidable collateral consequences that loom in partnership with entering the justice system. And it works.
According to the LEAD Program Evaluation: Recidivism Report short-term outcomes were assessed for the six months prior and subsequent to participants’ entry into the evaluation and these cities calculated up to a 60 percent reduction in recidivism. Longer-term outcomes were assessed during the entirety of the LEAD evaluation time frame, ranging from October 2009 through July 2014. Compared to the control group, the LEAD group had 58% lower odds of at least one arrest subsequent to evaluation entry.
The Atlanta model strives to divert 150 people from jail, and provide them with social services such as drug treatment, mental health assistance, housing, and job placement programs. “Care Navigators” meet law enforcement officers at the scene to diagnose and redirect people into the health services that they need instead of funneling them into the criminal justice system.
How and why did this PAD program come to fruition?
It was a rigorous year-long process that involved City of Atlanta and Fulton County government officials, neighborhood and faith leaders, law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, social service providers, substance addiction and mental health experts, business leaders, and community advocates. Together, they were able to reach consensus on several objectives including that pre-arrest diversion happens before an arrest is made, as opposed to after someone has been taken into custody and booked. With foresight during the program development stage, PAD does not exclude people with criminal records, those who are homeless, or those who cannot pay for the program (there is no charge to participants). In several cities nationwide LEAD participants that have certain violent offenses in their criminal history are ineligible for diversion.
Atlanta’s version of PAD has a harm reduction philosophy of meeting people where they are and even though the program is just finding its footing, proponents and advocates are committed to the success of its participants. Harm reduction refers to policies, programs and practices that aim to reduce the harms associated with the use of psychoactive drugs in people unable or unwilling to stop. The defining features are the focus on the prevention of harm, rather than on the prevention of drug use itself, and the focus on people who continue to use drugs. One of the ways in which positive results is being supported includes training and supporting the social service providers through the creation of a PAD Social Service Network so as to ensure the provision of high quality and culturally-competent care.
Ultimately one of the most encouraging outcomes of this collaboration is the reframing and rethinking of Atlanta’s arrest model. Stake-holders have replaced a criminal justice approach with a program that supports wellness for all participants and works toward improving the quality of life of each person who joins the PAD program.
No one knows these tenets better then Moki Macias, the lead staffer for the Atlanta/Fulton County Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative. Macias is ready to try something different for people who are repeatedly arrested for the same offense. She knows people who have been arrested 20 times, some as many as 40. Instead of continuing a vicious cycle of incarceration, which we know does not work, she hopes to get them off the streets and into a rehabilitation program.
“This is an opportunity to change the culture of the city as a whole,” Macias said. “We’re improving the quality of life for people who have been told to simply disappear.”
One thing is clear: continuing to lock people up for offenses related to drug use, poverty and homeless only further devastates families and communities. Moving toward a health-based approach with wrap-around social services and removing the criminal system from the picture will only improve relations between communities and law enforcement. It could not have come a more appropriate time – we need a new way.
For more information on the Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative, please visit: http://prearrestdiversion.org/learn-about-pre-arrest-diversion/
Michelle Wright is a policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance's Office of National Affairs.