Leading the Movement Toward Diversion as a First Response: Building Connections to Treatment at the Front End of the Justice System

Below is an excerpt from TASC’s semi-annual News & Views. The current issue includes articles on pre-arrest, prosecutorial, and jail release interventions for people who have substance use and mental health conditions.

(Chicago) — A recent criminal justice trend is gaining traction. It has potential not only to help curb the devastation that the opioid epidemic is causing in communities across the nation, but also to bring law enforcement, treatment providers, and communities together to solve common challenges that substance use and mental health disorders pose.

It’s known as pre-arrest diversion. Other terms include front-end diversion, deflection, and pre-booking diversion. Regardless of terminology, the goal is the same: to divert eligible individuals with substance use and mental health disorders to treatment before logging an arrest.

“We know from decades of research and experience that formal connections to treatment can improve access and outcomes,” said TASC President Pam Rodriguez. Lessons learned from prosecutorial diversion programs, court intervention programs, and reentry programs can, and should, be applied even earlier in the justice system.”

The first point of entry into the justice system—and thus the earliest opportunity for justice diversion—is law enforcement.

“For most people who are manifesting substance use and mental health disorders, there are better alternatives than arrest,” said Rodriguez. “Through our work with partners across the country, we hope to make it easier for law enforcement officers to connect people to treatment.”

Building Police-Treatment-Community Partnerships

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2000 to 2015, nearly half a million people died from a drug overdose, and since then, mortality rates have climbed precipitously, with a record 64,000 people having lost their lives to overdose in 2016.

Often at the front line of these tragedies, local law enforcement agencies are seeking new ways to better serve and protect communities confronting the consequences of substance use disorders, especially as police frequently interact with individuals affected by addiction and/or overdose. Pre-booking or pre-arrest diversion strategies can help reduce drug use, promote public safety, and save lives.

In March, the Center for Health and Justice at TASC partnered with the Civil Citation Network to convene the first-ever national summit focused on pre-arrest diversion. Criminal justice, behavioral health, and public policy experts from across the country gathered at the headquarters of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in Alexandria, Virginia, for two days of information sharing and planning.

From this meeting emerged the Police, Treatment and Community Collaborative (“PTAC Collaborative”), the first national effort to build a multi-disciplinary approach that ensures law enforcement, treatment professionals, and community members collaborate as equal partners to widen community behavioral health and social service options available through law enforcement diversion.

Working through the PTAC Collaborative, IACP and TASC have come together to promote alternative-to-arrest diversion programs for state, county, and local law enforcement agencies across the United States. This collaboration seeks to greatly improve the means, ease, and speed with which law enforcement can partner with substance use and mental health treatment providers so that police can help people access treatment.

Read more about TASC’s partnership with IACP and the PTAC Collaborative to advance pre-arrest diversion.

Save the date for the inaugural PTAC Collaborative conference March 4-7, 2018 in Ponte Vedra, Florida.

Browse additional stories in the current issue of TASC News & Views, including frameworks for pre-arrest diversion (p. 5), prosecutorial diversion in Illinois (p. 6), and the new Supportive Release Center in Cook County, Illinois, where TASC and partners provide intervention and service linkages at the critical point of release from jail (p. 7).

Also in this issue:

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OP-ED: Revamping of Health Law Could Be Costly to Illinois

As Congress prepares to replace the Affordable Care Act, it is essential that the Medicaid expansion provision of the law be protected.

Any rollback of federal Medicaid coverage would be particularly harmful to Illinois, especially as our state grapples with budget deficits, an opioid epidemic, and an overburdened criminal justice system.

Under the ACA, Illinois was among the majority of states that expanded Medicaid, which provides federally-funded health insurance for low-income people. In a January letter to congressional leaders, the Rauner administration expressed concern about potential changes to Medicaid, pointing out that 3.2 million Illinoisans—almost one-quarter of the state’s population—are enrolled in coverage. 

Reducing Medicaid coverage would deprive Illinois of millions of dollars per year in federal support. As an example, in behavioral health services alone, the state would have to replace an estimated $80 million per year in federal Medicaid resources to pay for community-based substance use and mental health services that would support alternatives to incarceration and reentry initiatives.

Second, such changes would fly in the face of efforts to address the opioid epidemic that is devastating Illinois communities. Nineteen Illinois sheriffs, prosecutors, and police chiefs recently signed a letter to Congress urging action against any policy changes that would make it even harder for low-income individuals to access addiction and/or mental health treatment. Lack of treatment access impairs law enforcement’s ability to prevent overdose deaths and to make our communities safer.  

Finally, rolling back Medicaid coverage would hamstring Illinois’ successful bipartisan progress toward reforming the criminal justice system. Coverage for addiction and mental health services is essential to the state’s strategy for preventing crime, reducing recidivism, and avoiding the $41,000 per person annual average cost of incarceration for those whose non-violent offenses stem from untreated health conditions.

It is well recognized that there are aspects of the Affordable Care Act that must be overhauled. However, as changes are made, and to expound on what the Governor’s administration and criminal justice experts have written, it would be foolhardy and counter-productive if those changes include an attack on Medicaid coverage. Illinois can ill afford such a loss.

Pamela F. Rodriguez, President & CEO of TASC

TASC President Pam Rodriguez


Pamela F .Rodriguez is president and CEO of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC, Inc.) and a member of Governor Rauner’s Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform.

Public Support Grows for Criminal Justice Diversion Initiatives

(Chicago) – A recent poll of Illinois voters indicates strong support for criminal justice reform. More than two thirds (70 percent) agree that state prisons are overcrowded and require reform for people with non-violent offenses, and four in five (83 percent) support sending fewer individuals with low-risk, non-violent offenses to prison so that state funding can be used to keep people who have committed violent offenses incarcerated for their full sentences.

The number of people behind bars in the U.S. has grown more than 500 percent over the past four decades, and U.S. incarceration rate tops the charts. In line with public opinion, policymakers are reversing their appetite for tough-on-crime policies that have fueled record incarceration rates. In fact, criminal justice reform stands apart as one of the only issues on which individuals across political parties are unified in their support.

There also is a growing understanding of the extremely high rates of substance use and mental health disorders among people involved in the criminal justice system, and of the need to address these problems earlier in the lifespan as a critical part of criminal justice reforms, before medical and behavioral health problems become advanced, and before the often lifelong collateral consequences of a conviction block individuals’ efforts to reenter communities, lead productive lives, and avoid future criminal behavior, re-arrest, and re-incarceration.

In 2013, TASC’s Center for Health and Justice (CHJ) conducted a national survey of criminal justice diversion programs and practices, to explore the landscape of diversion at the front end of the system—by law enforcement, by prosecutors and pre-trial service agencies, and by courts. CHJ is currently conducting an Illinois survey to explore the use of diversion programs and practices at phases of justice system involvement prior to conviction and sentencing, with a special focus on those operated by prosecutors, and plans to release a report with findings and recommendations later this year.

Poll of Illinois voters shows overwhelming support for criminal justice reform. Source and image credit: U.S. Justice Action Network

Poll of Illinois voters shows overwhelming support for criminal justice reform. Source and image credit: U.S. Justice Action Network

National TASC Conference Showcases Local Diversion Programs

(Chicago) – Several criminal justice diversion programs in Illinois were showcased at the recent annual conference of National TASC, an association of programs that connect justice systems to community-based treatment.

TASC, Inc. of Illinois served as the host organization for the national conference, which took place in Chicago and drew attendees representing programs in states from North Carolina to Hawaii. One of the conference themes was the importance of diverting people with non-violent charges away from traditional criminal justice processing and into services in the community.

Although diversion is not a new concept, public opinion, health coverage brought about by Medicaid expansion, and bipartisan efforts toward criminal justice reform have propelled such initiatives to the forefront of public policy. The goals of such programs vary depending on the jurisdiction, but most aim to reduce the numbers of people going into the justice system, reduce jail stays, strengthen connections to health and supportive services in the community, and reduce recidivism.

Illinois Diversion Programs Highlighted

At the conference, held April 25-27 at the Westin Michigan Avenue, experts who have implemented front-end diversion programs in Illinois offered their experiences and strategies for developing these initiatives. Chief Eric Guenther, public safety director for the Village of Mundelein, and Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim described their collaboration in implementing smart-on-crime approaches. Motivated by the dramatic increase in opioid overdoses and deaths in the area, they are leading the development of a collaborative effort to divert people with drug problems to community-based treatment rather than arrest them. Similar programs are being designed and implemented across Illinois and the country, inspired by the Gloucester, Massachusetts, Angel Program launched in 2015.

“We have been losing a lot of young people to overdose deaths all over our county. We had to come up with a new way of dealing with this [opioid] epidemic,” said Nerheim. “The vast majority of people who come into the system are going to be back with us—back in society—and we want them to be productive members. Everyone should have the opportunity for a second chance.”

Chief Guenther noted the importance of building trust between the community and law enforcement, so that community members feel comfortable coming to the police department for help. He remarked on the police department’s unique ability to engage people any time of day, any day in the year. “A person may decide at 2:00 a.m. that they want out [of addiction], and having to wait until 8:00 a.m. may mean that we lose that window.” Guenther also stressed that planning processes should include people in recovery to ensure that programming and messaging will appeal to individuals who need help.

Mark Kammerer, the alternative prosecution/sentencing unit coordinator at the Cook County, Illinois, State’s Attorney’s Office, described the array of programs in place to divert people out of traditional case processing, noting that his office has been operating diversion programming in some fashion since the 1970s. “We now have interventions for people with the least extensive criminal background to high-risk, high-need individuals. One size does not fit all, so we offer a continuum of interventions. The goal is to identify and screen people to get them into diversion programs sooner, rather than later, in the criminal justice system.”

TASC Vice President George Williams, who offered the conference’s opening remarks, spoke of TASC’s 40-year history in advocating for people who need help, and emphasized that clients, constituents, friends, and family members are at the heart of this work. “Everything we do in this room is for the rights, interests, health, and needs of the men and women who have come through our doors,” he said.

New Opportunities via Medicaid Expansion

“Diversion programs are surging in popularity and evolving in response to current needs,” said Laura Brookes, policy director at TASC. Introducing the panel discussion, Brookes offered that the justice system can divert many people who represent a low public safety risk to programs in the community, stemming the tide of people coming into the system at the front end and throughout it.

“Now is a particularly exciting time to be involved in this work, not only because of the broad support for much-needed reform, but also with the expansion of Medicaid in many states under the Affordable Care Act,” said Brookes. “This means that local and state governments can save justice and corrections costs by establishing connections to Medicaid-reimbursable behavioral health and medical resources in the community. These resources can help increase diversion, as justice systems become confident that many of people they are diverting will be able to access the care they need and reduce offending.”

The benefits of diversion programs were highlighted at the 2016 National TASC conference.

Benefits of diversion programs were highlighted at the 2016 National TASC conference in Chicago.

TASC Public Policy Priorities

At local, state, and federal levels, TASC supports public policies that reduce incarceration and create healthier communities. Our policy priorities are to:

1. Shrink the justice system by diverting eligible people away from prosecution and incarceration and into community-based services, as soon as appropriate.

2. Create pathways for successful reentry after justice involvement, and reduce barriers that inhibit success.

3. Promote evidence-based strategies in substance use and mental health disorder prevention, treatment, and recovery.

4. Expand community capacity to treat mental health and substance use disorders, adapting to changing environments.

TASC President Pam Rodriguez serves on Governor Rauner’s Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, and she has been honored by the White House for advancing system-wide justice interventions for people with substance use disorders. Rodriguez and TASC Founder Melody Heaps are featured in a White House video describing TASC as a model for reducing incarceration and increasing access to community-based healthcare and recovery.

For more information on TASC’s public policy activities, please visit our Center for Health and Justice.

TASC President Appointed to Governor Rauner’s Criminal Justice Reform Commission

(Springfield) – TASC President Pam Rodriguez has been appointed to Governor Bruce Rauner’s Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform.

Established by the Governor’s executive order in February, the new Commission will examine all aspects of Illinois’ criminal justice system, sentencing practices, community supervision, and the use of alternatives to incarceration.

Twenty-eight members were named to the Commission, including lawmakers, researchers, nonprofit leaders, and criminal justice experts. Former U.S. Attorney Rodger Heaton, who was named in January to serve as the state’s public safety director, will chair the Commission.

A primary goal of the Commission is to issue recommendations to reduce the population of the state’s crowded prisons by 25 percent within 10 years.

“With the state’s leadership and all of us working together, I feel confident that we can achieve that goal sooner,” said Rodriguez, a projection she echoed in an interview with WICS in Springfield on Wednesday.

“We know what works,” she said. “We have an opportunity to implement evidence-based alternatives to incarceration on a far broader scale, and at the same time achieve better results in terms of cost savings and reduced recidivism.”

The Commission will issue its initial findings and recommendations to the Governor by July 1, and a final report to the Governor and the General Assembly by December 31, 2015.

TASC President Pam Rodriguez, named to Governor Rauner's criminal justice reform commission, is interviewed by WICS Newschannel 20 at the Illinois Capitol in Springfield.

TASC President Pam Rodriguez, named to Governor Rauner’s criminal justice reform commission, is interviewed by WICS Newschannel 20 at the Illinois Capitol in Springfield.

 

Pamela Rodriguez Op-Ed in Daily Herald: Is Illinois Ready for Criminal Justice Reform?

In a guest opinion-editorial for the Daily Herald, TASC President Pamela Rodriguez discusses the timely and promising opportunities for criminal justice reform in Illinois.

The General Assembly’s new Joint Criminal Justice Reform Committee, chaired by State Rep. Michael J. Zalewski (D-Riverside) and State Senator Michael Noland (D-Elgin), recognizes the need to reduce incarceration of non-violent offenders and those who struggle with mental illness and addiction, asserts Rodriguez. “We can begin to make significant reforms that allow people to get treatment for behavioral health issues as soon as or even before they come in contact with the criminal justice system,” she writes.

Read Rodriguez’s op-ed, including the unique opportunities for reform presented by Medicaid expansion.