In just a few short months, Baltimore’s LEAD program has diverted dozens of low-level drug offenders away from the criminal justice system to community services, including treatment.
Forty years after the inception of the “War on Drugs,” the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In Baltimore City, that translates into thousands of drug-related arrests every year. In 2014, of the approximately 15,000 drug-related arrests in Baltimore, nearly three-quarters of them were for simple possession. As of 2010, 90 percent of the population in Baltimore City Detention Center was African American, despite African Americans comprising only 64 percent of the population.
The combination of punitive approaches to drug use and the over-incarceration of African Americans fueled by structural and institutional racism has led Baltimore City to explore alternative methods of drug enforcement as well as ways to repair police and community relations.
To that end, OSI-Baltimore initiated a collaborative effort between the Baltimore Police Department, the State’s Attorney’s Office and Behavioral Health System Baltimore (BHSB) to divert people who would otherwise be arrested on low-level drug charges to community-based services that address their underlying substance use disorders, rather than incarceration. With primary funding from OSI-Baltimore, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program was first announced in December 2015 and officially launched a pilot program in February 2017.
LEAD, a program piloted in Seattle in 2011, aims to improve the health and well-being of residents by connecting them to treatment and support, such as housing, education, and legal services, rather than arrest. This model has the potential to decrease arrests, increase access to treatment and other services, and permanently shift the way police interact with those struggling with behavioral health issues.
Just five months after it launched, the LEAD pilot program showed tremendous results, with more than 40 referrals to services. This puts the Baltimore LEAD program ahead of every other new site in the country, in some cases by a significant amount.
Proponents of the program see this as a reason to believe that Baltimore’s program can have the same successes that the Seattle program has had. There, the city has seen an overall reduction in drug crimes and significant reduction in re-arrest rates for program participants.
LEAD is a joint OSI-Baltimore effort between the Drug Addiction Treatment and Criminal and Juvenile Justice programs. BHSB is coordinating the program, focused on the section of the city surrounding Lexington Market, chosen because of its high rate of drug-related crime. Initially, the program will serve 60 participants; an expansion to include more individuals and neighborhoods is already underway.