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Helping People with Addiction Through Treatment Diversion Programs, Not Jail

Police across the nation seem it finally be catching onto something those in the addiction treatment field have known for a long time — treating addicts like people and offering them help, instead of locking them up, works better than treating them like criminals.

Police in Gloucester, MA recently announced that if someone comes to them looking for help, that person will get help. It doesn’t matter if they’re in possession of drugs or paraphernalia, they’ll get help.

And according to a report from VICE News, police in Seattle are doing the same. A pilot program called LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) has been making waves in the Emerald City.

The program, at its most basic, attempts to divert addicts from jail and instead connect them with treatment, healthcare, housing, vocational training, and other life skills services. Although still new, LEAD’s produced some major results.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Susan Collins, a Clinical Psychologist at UW’s School of Medicine, is hopeful for LEAD’s future. When asked about it, she replied,

“The offenders were basically committing crimes of homelessness, they’re basically just [doing enough petty crime] to survive. This program is trying to break the jail-to-street-to-jail cycle. But, it’s not like drug court, it doesn’t involve abstinence, and doesn’t require people to stop using substances” (VICE News).

What Makes LEAD Unique?

As should be clear from the above quote, the first thing that sets LEAD apart from other jail diversion programs is they don’t require abstinence. That’s fairly surprising for any treatment or harm reduction program in the United States.

So, is this approach working? According to the research, it appears to offer potential. A study from the University of Washington (UW) concluded that LEAD has improved the quality of life for its participants, which now number more than 200. UW also concluded that those in LEAD were between 34 to 58 percent less likely to engage in criminal behavior.

Those numbers seem promising to me. The natural next question is how do these programs work so well? How is this program, funded through the start of 2016 for the modest sum of $1.5 million, able to produce such large results?

The answer, once again, lies in how the program operates. Police, prosecutors, and harm reduction activists work together with addicts, many of who are homeless, towards a common goal. That goal is different for each patient or participant.

For some of LEADS participants, the goal is to obtain housing and reestablish relationships. For others, it’s to get a GED and enroll in college. For still others, the goal is simple abstinence and recovery.

There’s one more major difference between LEAD and other programs like it. Seattle’s success story doesn’t have any time limits or discharge dates attached to it. Those participating in LEAD can stick around for as long as they want.

The Future of Diversion Programs

LEAD appears to be a major success. Still, the future of it and other similar programs, notably the harm reduction approach in Gloucester, are uncertain. Remember, LEAD’s only funded through early 2016. It remains to be seen if Seattle will continue to subsidize harm reduction on a large-scale level.

One thing is certain though. Seattle, Gloucester, and other communities offering these type of community based, common sense programs are changing addiction treatment forever. No longer does treating those suffering from addiction like criminals work. There’s something new on the horizon and LEAD is, well, leading the charge.

The Deputy Director of the Public Defender Association of Seattle, Lisa Daugaard, thinks the same. While talking to VICE, she said the following,

“The war on drugs is largely a failure…Even though a lot of people now agree on that, we’re still using the same tactics because there’s a lack of consensus on how to go forward. LEAD is a next step in that conversation.”

Sounds true to me.

Helping an addict photo available from Shutterstock

Helping People with Addiction Through Treatment Diversion Programs, Not Jail

David Greenspan

David Greenspan's a media specialist at Chapters Recovery. He's written extensively about the world of addiction recovery for several years. He's also been sober since 2008 & finds nothing better than being able to help addicts & alcoholics who are still struggling with this disease.

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APA Reference
Greenspan, D. (2018). Helping People with Addiction Through Treatment Diversion Programs, Not Jail. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 7 Jun 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.