Portland, other Maine cities ready to ‘LEAD’ on substance abuse

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PORTLAND — Mayor Michael Brennan and seven other city leaders in the state are proposing crime diversion programs to deal with substance abuse and seeking $2 million in state funding.

Patterned after the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, programs now used in Seattle, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Albany, New York, the pilot projects were proposed by the eight-member Mayor’s Coalition last month.

“If you have the police chief saying 75 percent of the crime in the city is related to substance abuse, how do you break that up?,” Brennan said Sept. 3.

He said the proposal will be discussed at a Thursday, Sept. 17, meeting in City Hall of his subcommittee on substance abuse. On Sept. 24, coalition members will meet with state Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

The proposal seeks $250,000 for each program. A case manager is expected to cost $70,000, and the remainder could be used to “assist addicts as they seek to stabilize their lives and move past addiction,” according to the proposal.

The programs would be open to addicts using alcohol or drugs. Brennan and Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said alcohol abuse is still the larger issue in the city.

Along with Brennan, the coalition includes Mayors David Rollins, of Augusta; Alan Casavant, of Biddeford; Robert Macdonald, of Lewiston; Don Pilon, of Saco; Thomas Cote, of Sanford; Collen Hilton, of Westbrook; and Bangor City Council Chairman Nelson Durgin.

Coalition staffer Rick McCarthy said Sept. 8 the proposal is open ended.

“We have intentionally left some flexibility in our proposal with the expectation that DHHS, if interested, will want some input on the details,” he said. “The eight pilots could be the coalition communities, but we are open to an approach that includes a variety of communities from around the state.”

The diversion approach is part of a three-part strategy McCarthy endorsed in an Aug. 20 letter to Mayhew, along with increased resources for law enforcement and substance abuse education and prevention.

Sauschuck said the concept is fresh.

“This whole conversation of diversion was not happening 10 years ago,” he said Sept. 11.

In July, Assistant Police Chief Vern Malloch, city Overdose Prevention Project Coordinator Chris Corson, and subcommittee member Chris Poulos represented the city in White House conferences in Washington, D.C., where diversion programs were a focus.

“One key thing for all of us to remember is this is not a partisan or political issue,” Poulos, a University of Maine law student who has served time for a low-level drug conviction and has been sober for seven years, said last month. “It is about finding more efficient ways of protecting our community, getting our community members well and keeping our community safe.”

The LEAD program was introduced to the substance abuse subcommittee in January by Kris Nyrop, who works with public defenders in the Seattle area. and helped develop the program that was first implemented in 2011.

The program allows police officers to offer low-level offenders the option of getting treatment and assistance with housing and other necessities of life instead of criminal charges. It was estimated to cost $532 per month per person, down from $899 per month before the program existed.

A June report from the University of Washington studying 203 LEAD participants and 115 people arrested as usual concluded the LEAD program had fewer repeated bookings, reduced the number of felony charges filed, and reduced costs in the legal and criminal justice systems.

Last month, Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said the average daily cost of jailing offenders is $112 per day. The jail does not offer comprehensive treatment programs because prisoners do not often stay long enough for a full program. Joyce added that 43 of the 174 prisoners were serving Class E and D sentences that can last up to a year.

Poulos said diversion programs can also break the cycles of abuse that tear apart families.

“Simply removing someone from society by placing them in a jail cell does not treat addiction, period,” he said. “We are trying to pull these individuals out of these cycles.”

In March, Brennan and Sauschuck said a pilot program could fit in the Bayside area, but no area has been designated. Wherever one might be created, Sauschuck said the time has come.

“It is certainly the wave of the future because you can’t arrest or Narcan your way out of the problem,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Law student Chris Poulos of Portland, who is in long-term recovery: “Simply removing someone from society by placing them in a jail cell does not treat addiction.”

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.