Improving the lives of people with addiction — alternatives to arrest
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Deflection, sometimes called pre-arrest diversion, is a game-changing intervention that is rapidly emerging in communities battling the opioid epidemic, longstanding cocaine use, and now the growing methamphetamine crisis. As a practice, it involves three primary stakeholder groups - law enforcement/first responders, treatment professionals (drug treatment, mental health, housing, and other service providers), and community partners. These three systems come together to collaborate on rapidly connecting people with substance use disorders and mental illness to treatment, supports and services. Over 750 communities across the country are already engaging in some form of pre-arrest diversion or deflection program. 

While deflection programs are primarily, but not exclusively, focused on treatment, it also provides options for law enforcement when faced with individuals who might just need housing or other services to keep from being justice-involved. By collaborating with community-based treatment and social service providers, law enforcement can use a “warm hand-off” to connect these individuals in real-time to the treatment and services they need. The redirection of individuals is an effective alternative to arrest, jails, homeless shelters, and emergency rooms because it focuses on doing what is most impactful: getting people the help they need, when they need it, and without the destabilizing effects of jail or other institutional settings.

It is also a much better solution than doing nothing, because without deflection protocols in place, law enforcement lacks the necessary tools and relationships to help facilitate positive outcomes for the vulnerable citizens in their communities. In fact, one of the goals of deflection is to reduce the social burden placed on law enforcement to address problems they are neither equipped nor trained to solve. Instead, deflection programs enable law enforcement officers to act as a gateway to local treatment experts, who are able to utilize their specific and necessary skills.

Deflection, however, is not designed for everyone. It is best used for people with substance use or mental health issues, and/or low-risk, non-violent offenders for whom charges may be held in abeyance pending completion of a specified treatment or justice-centered program. It is up to each person to take personal accountability and follow through, but deflection now provides an option so individuals do not have to enter the justice system in order for their behavioral health needs to be met.

It is important to also note that the use of deflection is not limited to times of crisis. Indeed, the ability to refer an individual to community-based treatment before something becomes a criminal issue, provides law enforcement with a powerful preventive tool that allows them to be proactive in addressing the health both of that individual and their community.

Officers understand that some of the people with whom they come into contact have done nothing to trigger an arrest, but that they do need an intervention or the next time they see that individual, his/her condition will be much worse. This is where the power of Deflection can have the most impact as a preventive strategy. When used effectively and with intentional focus on equitable outcomes, deflection has the potential to reduce disparities in arrest and prosecution.

Congress has taken notice of this new field in recent years. Three federal laws supporting deflection are providing communities with a new way of functioning that more effectively responds to the needs of citizens with serious mental illness (CURES in 2016) and/or drug use issues, including opioids and methamphetamines (CARA in 2016). In addition, because getting treatment is part of an evidence-based public health approach to crime-reduction, deflection can also be appropriate for some of the reentry population (First Step Act in 2019) who need access to many of the very same community-based services as those individuals being deflected from the criminal justice system. And for the first time ever, deflection was also highlighted in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy’s 2019 National Drug Control Strategy.

The continued wide-spread adoption of deflection in the United States would be a game changer. Reducing the stigma around addiction and treatment, imagine if law enforcement, upon encountering a person who needed help not handcuffs could include quick connections to drug treatment and mental health? Without much fanfare, like a quiet (and growing) revolution, this is already underway.

The Police, Treatment, and Community Collaborative (PTACC), a coalition of 31 national organizations, will host two education briefings about deflection on Capitol Hill on June 5, 2019 in the Capitol Visitors Center. These sessions will provide information on how deflection is implemented in communities around the nation; how local law enforcement, treatment and service providers and community members, can collaborate to build the treatment and service capacity needed to implement deflection programs; and how effective policies can help reduce barriers to implementation and build programs that are sustainable, effective and transformative. For more information and to register for the event, visit https://ptacc_hill_day_rsvp.eventbrite.com.

Jac A. Charlier, MPA, is executive director of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities’ Center for Health and Justice (CHJ). CHJ is an internationally recognized non-profit providing justice policy and systems solutions to reduce crime. Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.) served for 34 years with the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department. He is the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system.