We must end the mass crisis of criminalization and incarceration in our communities. To do this, we must take concrete, practical steps on the local level to divest from cops, courts, and corrections and re-invest in the resources and services our communities need to thrive.
Reliance on traditional criminal sanctions for many offenses including drug use, subsistence dealing, and sex work/prostitution is an ineffective strategy for improving public safety and addressing quality of life concerns. Atlanta’s current approach merely moves a relatively small fraction of people off the streets for brief periods of time, at a significantly higher cost than non-criminal justice system interventions, and with little to no improvement in neighborhood quality of life. Absent other interventions, it does not reposition people to make positive life changes. Instead, it burdens individuals with criminal records and fines and fees that become barriers to housing, employment, and education. Moreover, traditional drug law enforcement in Atlanta has a well-documented disparate racial impact and current sex work/prostitution enforcement disproportionately impacts trans* women of color.
SOLUTION: A PRE-ARREST DIVERSION PROGRAM
A pre-arrest diversion program (also known as pre-booking diversion) is one that identifies people for whom probable cause may exist for an arrest, and redirects away them from jail and prosecution by connecting them to high quality, community-based treatment and support services. The goal is to improve individual and community quality of life through research-based, public health-oriented interventions. Pre-arrest diversion programs consist of both a law enforcement and social services component.
Pre-arrest diversion is a promising alternative to expensive court-based interventions. It is different from many court diversion programs because the diversion is made at the stage before booking, therefore bypassing the costs and time entailed in booking, charging, and requiring court appearances of an individual. Such a program provides participants with immediate case management services and access to additional resources to make sustainable changes in their life.
BUILDING ON SUCCESS: LAW ENFORCEMENT ASSISTED DIVERSION (LEAD)
A very successful pre-arrest diversion program known as LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) was piloted in Seattle/King County, Washington in October of 2011 and a program modeled after it was launched in Santa Fe, New Mexico in January of 2014. Other jurisdictions, including Albany, NY and Portland, ME, are now looking to create similar programs. LEAD is the result of an unusual collaboration among diverse stakeholders, motivated by a shared dissatisfaction with the outcomes and costs of traditional drug and sex work/prostitution law enforcement. Collaborators include the County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the Seattle Police Department, the Sheriff’s Office, the Mayor’s Office, The Defender Association, the ACLU of Washington, neighborhood associations, and community members.
LEAD’s goals are to reduce the harm caused by those engaged in certain activities such as drug use and sex work to themselves and to the surrounding community. This program has proved to transform individual lives and reduce recidivism rates by as much as 60%. It has also shifted the culture of policing in Seattle, giving officers incentives to invest in residents’ well being instead of merely their arrest and prosecution.
In Santa Fe, a local foundation conducted a thorough Cost-Benefit Analysis prior to the implementation of the LEAD-like program and predicted impressive savings to the city while improving outcomes for individuals and safety for communities and neighborhoods.
KEY PRINCIPLES FOR A SUCCESSFUL PRE-ARREST DIVERSION PROGRAM
There are certain key principles that a successful program must adhere to, even as it is adapted to local needs and circumstances. These include:
- Adequate training, clear administrative policies & diversion protocols for law enforcement officers.
- Immediate access to needed services for program participants, rather than referral to a waiting list.
- Service-dedicated funding, meaning approximately 50% of program funding will be directed toward acquiring direct services for program participants, rather than toward program overhead, administration or staffing.
- Commitment to a harm reduction approach, meaning a focus on individual and community wellness, rather than an exclusive focus on sobriety/abstinence.
- Use of peer outreach workers and competent case managers. Decades of research demonstrate that peer-based interventions are a highly successful way to intervene with marginalized populations. Peer outreach workers and case managers have different and important roles as community guides and/or advocates, who work to link diverted individuals to housing, vocational and educational opportunities and community services, while also providing credible role models of success.
- Involvement of neighborhood public safety leaders. Concerned community members will have the opportunity to engage with the program as it develops, through an advisory board structure. This will help ensure community public safety leaders’ comfort with a new approach. Ideally, community members may also be able to refer individuals for program participation.
- Clearly delineated evaluation criteria and procedures to ensure accountability to the public and facilitate review of programmatic effectiveness by policymakers, including an independent evaluation of the program by outside experts.
- Cultural competency in all aspects of the program, including outreach, case management, and service provision.
- Commitment to capturing and reinvesting criminal justice savings to sustain pre-booking diversion programs, and support improvement and expansion of other “upstream” human services and education efforts.
A CALL TO ACTION FOR ATLANTA
Atlanta Police Department, social service providers, formerly incarcerated people, members of the LGBT community, and neighborhood residents agree that the City of Atlanta can no longer afford to rely exclusively on criminal sanctions to address many of our public health and safety challenges. We all know that arrest and jail are not effective deterrents and recidivism rates are frustratingly high. By implementing a pre-arrest diversion program, Atlanta can better the lives of our most vulnerable residents while improving our communities’ quality of life and increasing public safety and health.
 “LEAD Program Evaluation: Recidivism Report,” Collins, Lonczak, Clifasefi, University of Washington, March, 2015
 “LEAD Cost Benefit Analysis,” Santa Fe Community Foundation, June 2013