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To reduce drug crimes, send people to treatment instead of making arrests

By helping people get treatment and begin to rebuild their lives, deflection is a benefit to the individual, his or her family members and employer, and the community as a whole.

A man caught with a small baggie of heroin is taken into custody by Chicago police in the 3600 block of West Flournoy Avenue in 2018. He was offered drug treatment instead of jail. 
A man caught with a small baggie of heroin is taken into custody by Chicago police in the 3600 block of West Flournoy Avenue in 2018. He was offered drug treatment instead of jail. 
Frank Main/Sun-Times

There’s an ever-growing consensus that treating drug abuse as a crime rather than a public health problem is an ineffective waste of taxpayer money and criminal justice resources.

Now there is additional evidence: Tens of thousands of cases involving small amounts of illicit drugs churn through the Cook County justice system each year, only for these cases to be dismissed, as the Sun-Times and the Better Government Association reported in their recent investigation, The costly toll of dead-end drug arrests.”

These dismissals, however, do not happen until after taxpayers already have been saddled with the costs of arrests and court processing; 95% of the cases go nowhere. Worse, the system does not address the real issue that underlies the overwhelming majority of drug arrests in our country: individuals with substance use problems are not getting treatment. Absent treatment and recovery, police routinely see the same familiar faces of people in need as they are arrested repeatedy.

Something can be done — and already is happening — across the United States.

A significant part of the solution is a rapidly expanding approach called “deflection.”

Through this approach (also sometimes known as pre-arrest deflection), police and other first responders “deflect” people with substance use disorders from entering the justice system at all, and instead expedite handoffs to community-based substance use disorder treatment, housing, recovery, and other services. At a time when people are dying in record numbers from overdoses, deflection offers first responders a direct and effective way to help people access the treatment that will not only address their drug use, but interrupt the cycle of drug and related low-level offenses, rather than choking the justice system with a case that will soon be dismissed.

In deflection, there is no booking or prosecution. There are no wasted costs to taxpayers. The individual does not enter the criminal legal system. There is no stain on an individual’s record, no need for expungement (an extremely difficult process to complete). Deflection eliminates much of the undue burdens, in time and money, to the justice system and taxpayers. It also reduces the burden society places on police to respond to issues such as substance use disorders that truly require a public health response, not a law enforcement approach.

Additionally, by helping individuals access treatment and begin to rebuild their lives, deflection is a benefit to the individual, his or her family members and employer, and the community as a whole.

The use of deflection programs has increased over just the past few years. About 1,000 of the nation’s 18,000 police departments, plus a number of fire departments and emergency management services agencies, are involved in some form of deflection initiative.

A win-win-win approach

Deflection already has a growing presence in Chicago and Cook County. The Chicago Police Department and several municipalities in suburban Cook County — through a partnership with the Cook County Department of Public Health — have active and expanding initiatives. Programs in East St. Louis, southern Illinois, and other areas around the state are coming to fruition as the state takes the lead in these efforts that reimagine police work and public safety to align with a public health response that is grounded in the community.

It takes leadership on both local and state levels, in both practice and policy, to implement more deflection programs. For example, in 2018, state Sen. Melinda Bush (D-Grayslake) and state Rep. Marcus Evans (D-Chicago) won approval from the Illinois General Assembly of the nation’s first deflection legislation: SB3023, the Community-Law Enforcement Partnership for Deflection and Substance Use Disorder Treatment Act.

In 2021, the Act was updated to provide for the expansion of deflection to include “co-responder” models that incorporate other community partners such as emergency management services and community responders. Local leadership and flexibility are essential, because every community has unique needs and resources.

By accelerating deflection initiatives in Illinois, we can move towards a real and better solution to address drug use, and avoid, as your article suggests, the “colossal waste” our current system has created.

Reducing the cycle of substance use, crime, and incarceration through deflection is a true win-win-win.

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Joel K. Johnson is president and CEO of TASC, Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, which provides substance abuse and mental health assessment and case management for people referred by legal systems and family services.

Jac A. Charlier is executive director of the Police, Treatment, and Community Collaborative, a national collaborative of which TASC is a partner.