Pilot program offers addicts treatment instead of arrest
A new program aimed at methamphetamine and heroin addiction begins Friday, Oct.12, in Douglas County. Pathways to Hope offers addicts who commit certain crimes a choice.
"You can be arrested and booked or referred to treatment services," Superior Police Chief Nicholas Alexander said.
If they choose to seek help and successfully complete six months of treatment, no charges would be filed.
A person seeking help would be provided transportation to Lake Superior Community Health Center, either with an officer or through a taxi voucher, or an initial assessment to determine the level of care needed the following day. Any treatment costs not covered by the person's own insurance would be paid with grant funding.
"You always hear that rehab fails, that it's a waste of money," Alexander told members of the Public Safety Committee in August. "The studies I've seen have put rehabilitation rates, even for heroin, up to the 50 percent mark, which is pretty substantial."
Other studies have researched the economic impact of arresting chronic drug users.
"Not people who are selling or distributing the drugs, but chronic drug users who are ultimately committing collateral crimes to support their addiction," Alexander said. "It's many, many times more cost effective to fund treatment for them than it is to incarcerate them."
The Superior Police Department received a three-year $162,000 grant from the Wisconsin Department of Justice for the pilot program. Two similar pilot programs in Door County and Sauk Prairie also received funding.
"The program isn't designed to take away accountability," Alexander said. "It's more about second chances."
But it's no get-out-of-jail-free card. If the person does not successfully complete treatment, they would be charged with the original offense.
To be eligible for the pilot program, the person must be a Douglas County resident. The crime they are accused of must be a non-violent, low-level offense with addiction as its root cause. Their criminal history will also be checked for any past violent crimes.
Douglas County residents suffering from addiction don't have to commit a crime to receive help. Anyone seeking treatment can go to the Joint Law Enforcement office, turn in drugs and paraphernalia with no reprisal and receive the same treatment services.
The pilot program comes at a time when more avenues of treatment—including medication assisted treatment—are open to residents through a partnership between Lake Superior Community Health Center and NorthLakes Community Clinic.
Lake Superior Community Health Center offers primarily an abstinence-based program.
"While there is some room for a harm reduction model in treatment, we believe that addiction is a progressive illness and that the way to arrest that disease is to be free from all mood-altering chemicals," said Betsy Byler, director of outpatient mental health and substance abuse services at the center. "That's a hard road, but a doable road. And we will be there every step of the way."
Treatment will be tailored to each individual, she said.
"We will focus on helping patients get clean of the immediately life-threatening drugs and then move along to help them get clean from others such as marijuana," Byler said. "Our goal is progress, not perfection."
Criminal justice students at the University of Wisconsin-Superior will monitor the program's success, offering ongoing evaluation, data and analysis on how the program is working at no cost. They will be supervised by Maria Cuzzo, the head of the Legal Studies & Criminal Justice Program.
"In most cases, departments and agencies have to pay for that," Alexander said. "Because of our close connection to UWS, there's no professional service fee."
UWS also participated in the program creation through the work of students and Superior Fire Department Battalion Chief Howard Huber, who is completing a student internship with the Police Department focusing on social service related issues.
Both the police department and Douglas County Sheriff's Office will continue to target drug suppliers.
"We want our enforcement activities to focus on the people bringing the drugs into the community, not as much the end user," Alexander said.
Pathways to Hope provides a way to chip away at local demand for illegal drugs.
"When you look at the supply and demand nature of the business, we can get enforcement action on the dealers and that affects the supply," Alexander said. "And then provide means for addicted people to kick their habit, where we are nipping into the demand side."
It's expensive to fuel an illegal drug addiction. That leads to a lot of quality of life crimes in the community, from burglaries and car break-ins to financial theft. A UWS survey of Douglas County criminal complaints filed in 2016 found that about 50 percent could trace their root cause to alcohol and other drug abuse, Alexander said.
Curtailing local drug use, he said, has a community-wide impact and serves the all members of the community.
"It should also save lives," Alexander said.
City Council members reacted positively to news of the program during an August Public Safety Committee meeting.
"It's time that something is being done because these people have nothing," said 10th District Councilor Esther Dalbec, and the state isn't offering enough support.
They asked how many people that $162,000 would cover. Alexander said each case is different, but he expected it would provide treatment for about 20 people annually.
"A year and a half ago, we got Narcan to all our officers. Now we're bringing this in," Alexander said. "We're trying to be proactive in dealing with the opioid problem by coming up with some innovative ideas that are different than typical enforcement."
A similar program, MARI, was introduced in Madison about a year ago to combat the opioid epidemic. Wisconsin Public Radio reported in September that 13 people successfully completed the MARI program in its first year.
Alexander has expressed interest in launching a program like this since becoming chief Jan. 1, 2015.
"I"m obviously very excited," he said. "It's a shift in policing philosophy."
And it offers an opportunity, a second chance, to people battling addiction.
Alexander and Byler will be the guests on PBS' Almanac North at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12. Tune in for more information on Pathways to Hope.