If numbers are telling, then Santa Fe’s program to give drug addicts a second chance is off to a slow start.
One year after its green light from City Council, just five clients are enrolled in the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD), which seeks to offer alternatives for prison time to opiate addicts who have committed property crimes to support their drug habits. Initially, the task force for the program estimated it could serve up to 100 people each year.
Emily Kaltenbach, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, says this isn’t a sign that LEAD is behind schedule.
“One hundred was just an estimate early on,” she says. “It really depends on the funding.”
Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for treating drug addictions with the health care system instead of the justice system, spearheaded the LEAD effort after observing a similar program work in targeted areas in downtown Seattle. In 2012, former Santa Fe Mayor David Coss appointed a task force to study and come up with an alternative model to arresting drug offenders.
"The idea is that they aren’t committing another crime"
Unlike Seattle’s program, which deals with a wide range of drug addictions and is targeted at homeless addicts in the city’s urban downtown, Santa Fe’s program focuses squarely on opiate addictions and property crime. That’s based on the region’s heavy heroin use and home burglaries, which in 2011 ranked as second worst in the nation for areas with less than 100,000 residents, according to Santa Fe Police Department statistics.
Often, property crimes like these are related to someone supporting a drug habit.
The Santa Fe Community Foundation soon made a cost-benefit analysis that sampled 100 nonviolent drug offenders over three years and found that an alternative to repeatedly incarcerating them could have saved taxpayers nearly $1 million over that period. The task force recommended a three-year pilot program that would target drug-related property crime offenders for treatment instead of incarceration.
City Council earmarked $300,000 for LEAD and signed the pilot program into law in July 2013. Still, LEAD didn’t start enrolling clients until last April. That’s partly because four different government agencies involved had to get on the same page to administer the program.
“Everybody’s getting used to the protocol,” Kaltenbach says, noting that city and county governments, the District Attorney’s Office and the state Public Defender Department are all in on the action.
The slow pace is also because local law enforcement had to solidify guidelines on who would be eligible for the program. That meant establishing rules that reject violent offenders from eligibility.
The LEAD program really starts with city police, who can offer the program to offenders upon arrest. The district attorney then decides whether offenders’ crimes are too harsh to avoid jail time.
“We have the ultimate veto power,” says District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco. She notes that city police could refer someone to LEAD unaware that her office is investigating them on criminal allegations. But Pacheco says she hasn’t vetoed anyone from the program yet.
If offenders pass this stage, they enroll in LEAD, which offers counseling to help overcome opiate addictions and rehabilitate back to society. City Youth and Family Services Division Director Terrie Rodriguez says clients are supposed to be treated “from the understanding of drug addiction.” That means knowing that drug addicts relapse an average of seven times before getting clean.
“If a person has been hooked on heroin and says, ‘The suboxone works, but I need to smoke marijuana occasionally,’ that’s not going to get them kicked out of the program,” Rodriguez says, referring to medicine designed to treat opiate addictions. “The idea is that they aren’t committing another crime.”
Currently, the Santa Fe-based nonprofit The Life Link treats the program’s five clients through a contract with the city. Sean Favretto, a case manager at Life Link, is one of five employees there who sits on a LEAD committee. Every two weeks, they meet with local law enforcement and give them updates on LEAD clients. Deciding whether clients overstepped their legal bounds and should stay or be kicked out of the program is a case-by-case basis.
“Some people have more severe mental health problems than others,” Favretto says.
LEAD clients are given the same options as the other drug treatment patients at Life Link. That can include housing, outpatient treatment, psychotherapy and case managers. Favretto says the case managers help clients decide what the most immediate needs are, whether that’s housing, a job or sobering.
Clients are also free to determine how much recovery time they need and when they’re ready to stop treatment. “It’s on the client here to co-create their treatment with us,” Favretto says.
The LEAD model is also gaining interest is places like Austin, Denver and San Francisco. It may very well be the closest model to Portugal’s, which completely decriminalized illegal drugs 12 years ago and sends addicts to treatment programs instead of jails and prisons.
But Santa Fe has a long way to go before it gets to that point. Grants from nonprofits like the Open Society Foundations, McCune Charitable Foundation and Santa Fe Community Foundation put the program’s budget for this year at a total of $440,000. That’s enough to treat up to 40 clients in the next 12 months, Kaltenbach says.
She adds that the point of a pilot program is to experiment and tweak it when results start to come in. Pacheco, who worked with treatment programs on the past and currently sits on both of the committees that govern LEAD, agrees.
“Anything that’s worthwhile,” she says, “takes time.”