Say a man named Frank who is in possession of a small amount of heroin is arrested by Lakewood police for shoplifting and given a summons to appear in court after telling the officer he stole the merchandise to pawn it for drug money.
It’s a common police procedure but one that often ends up leading to a depressing outcome for both Frank and Lakewood, Sgt. Jon Alesch recently told the Lakewood City Council.
“In Frank’s case, he continues to use drugs and commit crime in our community,” said Alesch. “Additionally, like many drug addicts, Frank fails to appear in court and a warrant is issued for him. Frank is then contacted by police when he is caught committing another crime and, depending on jail bed space, he may be arrested on his warrant or simply issued another warrant so the process can start all over the place.”
Soon, however, Lakewood officers will have another option for dealing with situation’s like Frank’s — and it is one Alesch says evidence suggests should help to decrease crime in Lakewood.
On Sept. 28, the Lakewood City Council approved an ordinance that gave a green light to the police department to establish a new diversion program that will allow around 20 offenders at a time to have low level charges against them dropped if they agree to work with a team of professionals to address their issues and get their lives on track.
Alesch said Lakewood Police determined a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program could be beneficial in Lakewood earlier this year but did not think the city was in a position to take on the cost of such a program.
So they submitted a request to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for a grant to fund the program. That grant, $366,486 a year, covers the entire cost of the program and can be renewed for up to two more years based on the success of the program and availability of funds, was approved in July.
Using LEAD, officers will have the discretion to determine whether low level crime suspects they come into contact with are a good fit for the program. Once a suspect agrees to participate, they will be required to complete a psycho-social intake assessment in the next 48 hours (or risk being charged for their original crimes if it is not completed in 30 days).
That assessment will evaluate issues related to chemical dependency, mental health concerns, housing, prior legal issues, employment and education, Alesch said.
From there, a case manager will work with suspects like Frank to create an individual service plan. The suspect will then be supported by a community group of addiction counselors, mental health counselors, housing navigators and others deemed necessary to his success. That group will meet every-other week to evaluate progress.
“This is all done to improve the quality of life for Frank and keep him from committing new crimes resulting in decreased crime and disorder in our community,” said Alesch.
Alesch, who will supervise the program, said the county will be hiring both a junior and senior case worker to manage the program. He said the program will aim to serve about 20 people in its first year before expanding to between 30 and 45.
There are 39 LEAD programs currently operating in the US, including two in Colorado. Lakewood will model its program after Longmont’s LEAD program, which is different from other programs in that the case managers are employed by the police department.
According to Alesch, that program recently celebrated its 200th successful program participant graduation. A CU Boulder study on that program found participants in the program were 50% less likely to be arrested to be arrested than people who went through the traditional criminal justice system and had 58% fewer police contacts, he said. LEAD participants are also hospitalized for mental health issues 25% less.
“When you start to talk about bringing wrap around services to these folks who are high needs utilizers you start to understand why the traditional criminal justice system hasn’t worked for them,” he said. “And by really creating a link with them we can create the success they need for the long term.”
The council expressed support for the program.
“I just want to thank you for all the work you and the department are doing always looking for better ways to serve our community,” said Mayor Adam Paul. “I am thrilled to support this.”