In Seattle's West police precinct, people who get arrested for the sale and possession of crack, heroin and other illegal drugs are no longer automatically prosecuted. Instead, reports the Huffington Post, police officers have the option of giving offenders a choice: leave the precinct the old-fashioned way, in handcuffs, or meet with a counselor at a social-service agency and avoid the court system altogether. Those who choose the second path are no longer offenders, but “clients.” Depending on their needs, they may receive free apartments, clean clothes, college tuition, books for school or even yoga classes. The underlying philosophy is known as “harm reduction.” Proponents believe in trying to rein in the secondary effects of drug addiction, including social ills like poverty and homelessness and physical diseases like HIV, by supporting people who are either unwilling or unable to stop using drugs.
Seattle may be the only U.S. city where the police have departed so sharply from the status quo. Judith Greene, the director of Justice Strategies, a nonprofit research group that studies criminal justice reform, couldn't think of another example of police arresting people for the purpose of “giving them a pathway to a new life.” It’s too soon to tell whether Seattle’s strategy will pay off in the long run. Its program, called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, is already attracting interest from other police departments and prosecutors' offices. San Francisco, Denver, Atlanta and Houston have sent representatives to Seattle to take notes, according to the program's administrators. Santa Fe recently adopted the model for people arrested for heroin and prescription opiates, and Albany, N.Y., is expected to launch a similar program this year.