By Mark Powell
Courts that Care
What if there was a way to reach people struggling with addiction before they get in trouble with the law? What if they could be reached before they’re taken into custody?
One Northeastern Pennsylvania county’s innovative approach does just that. And in the months since it was implemented, it’s already producing encouraging results.
Luzerne County’s story is similar to others around the Commonwealth. The opioid epidemic was going from bad to worse. Overdose fatalities kept going up. Widespread gang violence added to the problem. Hope that things would change was dwindling. A new approach was needed.
So, District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis set out to try something different. The young prosecutor studied the problem and decided to offer a ‘carrot and stick’ approach to people struggling with addiction. If they voluntarily agreed to supervised treatment before they were arrested, they wouldn’t face criminal charges.
And so, Luzerne County’s Pre-Arrest Diversion Program was launched. Here’s how it works.
When law enforcement comes upon someone who may benefit from the program, they’re referred to a case manager within 24 hours of an incident and given an opportunity to enter treatment. A waiver is signed, and the participant has 90 days to work toward recovery without fear of spending time behind bars. Prosecutors work closely with law enforcement in determining who is referred and accepted into the program.
“That’s the ‘carrot’ part of this approach,” Salavantis explains. “It removes the fear that this experience will ruin their life. The ‘stick’ part is, of course, jail time.”
The program doesn’t automatically conclude at the end of the 90-day period. The case manager continues working with the patient and assisting them toward their goal of recovery. The program continues to gain participants, and law enforcement is happy to offer an alternative to arrest.
Salavantis tells the story of a local kindergarten teacher who was found suffering an overdose. “We looked at it and thought this guy will lose everything if he’s arrested. His career will be over, he won’t be able to teach again with a criminal record, and he’ll have no way to support himself. But his addiction will still remain. So, he entered this program, and it’s providing him a way into recovery without losing everything.”
Salavantis points out that the Pre-Arrest Diversion Program provides benefits to the community as well as participants. It helps ease the burden on law enforcement by saving resources. It also saves taxpayer money by having fewer inmates to house, feed and guard in jail.
But there is another reward, one that can’t be counted in dollars saved or measured in resources spared. “One parent recently told me when their child entered the program, ‘This could save their life’,” Salavantis says. “That’s really what it’s all about.”
Luzerne County Pre-Arrest Diversion Program was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.
J. Mark Powell is an author, former network journalist, and veteran communications expert.