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Drug policy was the topic of discussion at the most recent quarterly San Francisco Sentencing Commission meeting. Key justice leaders such as the District Attorney, Sheriff, Police Department, and Chief Adult Probation Officer engaged with and learned from a diverse list of guest speakers who presented on out-of-state, national and international innovations in the field. As a Commissioner myself, I pondered how this wealth of information could be utilized to promote public safety in our community.

First, we need to understand the context of drug arrest patterns and activity in San Francisco. CJCJ has examined racially disparate arrest trends in San Francisco over the past two decades. Data analysis indicates the City arrests African Americans at a higher rate than the state average. Examination suggests the arrests are occurring in open-air markets in low income neighborhoods that are comprised significantly of people of color. However, despite the high rates of arrest, the county sentences very few drug offenders to state prison. This analysis suggests the Police Department is arresting the same individuals on a repetitive basis for the same criminal activity.

Seattle had a similar problem in their Bell Town neighborhood. Police were arresting the same faces on a regular basis, and many were drug addicts that sold drugs to support their habit. The community, including local store owners, were outraged and wanted to change what was happening in their streets. In a collaborative effort, justice stakeholders came together to create the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program. LEAD is a program that allows police officers to use their discretion to divert these individuals into community-based programming upon arrest. 

Seattle justice leaders presented to the Commission their approach with habitual drug arrestees and local leaders were quite intrigued by the possibilities. The program model is very interesting, and I appreciate how LEAD provides police officers, who maintain daily contact with these individuals, the power to seek alternatives to an otherwise punitive approach. The collaborative effort, dedication, community engagement, cost effectiveness, and treatment-focused approach were all notable and innovative components to the program. What impressed me the most was the interest by San Francisco leaders to seek peer-to-peer support on an approach that might work in our community.

Local model practices exist throughout the nation and there is substantial empirical research available to interested parties who seek to re-think their approach to juvenile and criminal justice. Justice leaders do not need to reinvent the wheel, but learn from others who have boldly risked a different approach within their local jurisdiction. The San Francisco Sentencing Commission created a connection and opportunity for our local community to embrace a strategy that could rectify a historic problem within San Francisco. 

The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the San Francisco Sentencing Commission.