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Some suspected drug and prostitution offenders in Baltimore will soon have the opportunity to see a case manager instead of a booking officer.

The Baltimore Police Department and Behavioral Health System Baltimore (BHSB) today announced a partnership on a pilot program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or more easily said, LEAD, that will send a portion of drug and prostitution cases to staff who work for Baltimore Crisis Response Inc. Case managers with the organization will help those individuals by referring them to drug treatment, mental health services, and housing aid. BHSB will oversee the entire effort.

At a press conference today, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said he sees how locking low-level drug offenders away doesn’t always help them. He pointed out that police have the unique professional responsibility of being able to “take someone’s freedom away.”

“All too often in our city and in our country, we handcuff, charge and incarcerate folks who are addicted to drugs,” he said. “They’re suffering from substance abuse, and incarceration does little if anything to cure them of that addiction.”

Baltimore took a page out of Seattle’s book in trying out this program, he said. The Pacific-Northwest city began its version of LEAD in 2011 and has watched it prove successful. Davis said his department felt the same diversion program could be tailored to fit the needs of Baltimore, which has an estimated 25,000 opioid users.

Health Commissioner Leana Wen praised the announcement as a change in how the city treats drug abusers. In addition to pointing out that it can save money from incarceration costs, Wen said, “Science is unequivocal that addiction is a chronic brain disease. It is not a moral failing. And therefore, treating addiction as a crime is unethical, unscientific and inhumane.”

The system is simple: a suspect will be apprehended by police and, if the alleged crime occurs in a defined area around Lexington Market in the police department’s Central District, they’ll have the option to be diverted to a case manager. Staff there will hook them up with treatment options and other assistance, or offenders can decline and opt instead to go through the criminal justice system.

The program will serve up to 60 suspected offenders at any given point, according to a release from BHSB. Davis said at the conference that more than 120 officers in the Central District are now LEAD-trained.

Speaking at the announcement, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby applauded it as a more holistic approach to law enforcement and said she was “ecstatic” about the collaboration. Her office, BPD and the Office of the Public Defender are among the agencies collaborating with BHSB and other groups on the pilot program.

BHSB president and CEO Kathleen Westcoat said the three-year pilot program would help those with drug use disorders to get the treatment they need. She also said it would alleviate some of the pressure on police and prosecutors to arrest and convict low-level offenders.

City agencies offered another program last month that aimed to reduce some of the pressure on criminal justice agencies by offering to drop failure-to-appear charges for those who missed court appearances if they worked with the public defender’s office to set a new court date. The “Second Chance” program concluded on Jan. 31.

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...