Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, November 2017

Worcester is rolling out the first program of its kind in Massachusetts to give non-violent offenders caught purchasing or possessing illegal drugs the choice to enter a treatment program instead of being arrested and charged with possession.

Modeled after the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which was launched in Seattle six years ago and has begun to spread across the nation, the “Buyer Diversion Treatment Alternative” program will have a case manager and social services representative respond to the scene when someone is caught by Worcester police purchasing or in possession of narcotics.

If the person chooses to enter treatment, according to Worcester Police Chief Steve Sargent, the case manager and social services representatives will follow up to ensure that the person is in fact making use of services and in recovery. If the person does not complete the treatment program, the police will then issue a summons.

The Worcester Police Department is working with the Worcester County District Attorney’s Office to implement the program, which is also funded by a $99,000 state grant that will allow the Police Department to hire the case manager.

The District Attorney’s Office will also determine whether people are eligible to opt into the program. Sargent said that dealers, offenders who have violent crimes on their records, or those with a lengthy criminal record will not be offered the treatment alternative; they will be arrested and charged as usual.

“This program is for low-level drug abusers, people who are addicted to opioids,” he said.

The police and DA’s Office are partnering with Spectrum Health Systems, which will provide the treatment programs for those who opt in.

“The case manager will work with the agencies,” Sargent said. “Obviously there are always insurance issues and things like that. We just want to get them into recovery.”

In Seattle, participants in the LEAD program were 58 percent less likely to be arrested after enrollment than those who were arrested and went through the standard criminal justice process.

Worcester has been hit hard by the opioid crisis. According to the Department of Public Health, the number of opioid-related overdose deaths in the city rose from 29 in 2012 to 81 in 2015. Worcester has had 268 such deaths from 2012 to 2016. Sargent noted the spillover effect of the crisis too, with four murders in the city this year.

“It hits us all — it hits family members and our community hard, so we’re trying to take a proactive approach to this,” the chief said, “It’s the old cliché, but we definitely cannot arrest our way out of this problem. This program is a step in the right direction and will give people the opportunity to break that cycle, get them into appropriate treatment, rather than criminal prosecution.”​

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