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Drug addiction is a public health issue requiring treatment as a health rather than criminal justice problem. Addiction’s physiological roots often require both behavioral and pharmacological treatment. With specialized training in addiction and smaller populations to serve, drug treatment facilities are better equipped to address health needs of individuals struggling with addiction than are jails or prisons. Rather than mitigating the effects past trauma has on an individual’s drug use, criminal justice involvement may even intensify trauma and its related drug use.

So, how do you divert justice-involved individuals into specialized programs that address the root causes of their criminal activity? One local solution is jail diversion programs that allow access to community-based treatment as an effective, health-centered alternative to incarceration. Pre-booking diversion offers early intervention from within the criminal justice system to access treatment for underlying causes of crime (e.g. drug addiction, mental illness, and homelessness) without related costs and consequences of arrest. 

Law enforcement of non-violent drug related crimes is costly. In fact, the White House conceded, Put simply, an enforcement-centric war on drugs” approach to drug policy is counterproductive, inefficient, and costly.” The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimated the national costs of drug abuse to be $193 billion in 2007. Drug-related crime and enforcement accounted for $113 billion of the total, while treatment costs accounted for only $14.6 billion. NIDA also found that drug treatment best reduces the costs and consequences associated with drug-related crime and enforcement. Earlier diversion allows quicker access to drug treatment, which results in greater criminal justice cost savings. 

Since 2011, Seattle and King County, in Washington State, have been part of a pre-booking diversion pilot program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). With LEAD, police have discretion to offer individuals, otherwise arrested for low-level drug crimes, the option of being admitted into community-based drug treatment, mental health, and housing services. This discretion is a tool law enforcement utilize to that allow officers to approach people facing drug-related health crises as individuals needing health services rather than legal punishment. 

In California, a number of post-booking options allow judicial discretion for diverting people accused of drug crimes into drug treatment. However, pleading guilty and accepting formal probation are often conditions of accessing treatment with existing diversion programs. Pre-booking diversion programs, like LEAD and those currently used by some California localities, can improve efficiency in treatment program placement and reduce the delays of court proceedings.

Ultimately, people accused of drug crimes should be treated as humans with health needs rather than a criminal subclass. State-wide pre-booking diversion options providing timely, effective, cost-efficient treatment can offer new avenues for humanity and health while diverting individuals from the criminal justice system entirely. Police are offered more reward in their work helping the public and individuals with addiction are offered a better chance at successful reintegration into society.