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  • Writer's pictureDahlia Foundation

Offering treatment to drug users instead of arresting them reduces crime and addiction

When police get suspected drug abusers treatment rather than arresting them, those people are less likely to abuse drugs or commit drug-related crimes in the future, new, limited research finds. This kind of police intervention can help reduce opioid abuse.

The U.S. has been in the throes of rampant opioid abuse since the late 1990s. Communities around the country have experienced increases in opioid-related deaths and crimes as a result.

One study shows opioid-related deaths more than quadrupled from 9,489 in 2001 to 42,245 in 2016. Another study indicates that people addicted to opioids are more likely than people who don’t use opioids to have run-ins with police. The rate of opioid-related crimes in the U.S. has increased substantially, from 32 per 100,000 people in 2005 to 78 per 100,000 people in 2018.

Historically, for public safety, police have arrested people suspected of using drugs. Research shows, though, that this approach has not been effective at reducing drug abuse or related crimes.

But there is another way that appears to work better. In Arizona, the Tucson Police Department is trying an approach known as pre-arrest diversion. When officers respond to community calls about crime, they sometimes suspect the perpetrator may be abusing drugs. When they do, they don’t always arrest that person. Instead, officers connect that person with substance abuse treatment providers. I recently led a study that found this approach is as effective as arrest at reducing both drug abuse and crime.

As a professor of social and behavioral sciences, I study treatment models and policy improvement regarding substance use and the criminal justice system. Following a community-based approach, I share the findings with other researchers and policymakers, as well as with the groups I studied.

The effectiveness of pre-arrest diversion programs

Findings from research on the effectiveness of Seattle’s pre-arrest diversion program suggest that these criminal diversion programs result in fewer arrests for people with substance abuse disorders. The findings also indicate that the program decreased homelessness, another program goal, with participants twice as likely to have housing after participating.

My team’s research shows that people who were offered substance abuse treatment, instead of being arrested, decreased their drug use more than people who were not offered substance abuse treatment and were arrested. On average, six months after their interaction with Tucson police, people who accepted diversion to a substance abuse treatment program used illegal drugs less frequently than people who had been arrested.

In addition, diversion to substance abuse treatment in Tucson was as effective as arrest in decreasing criminal activity.

That is why these programs may be an effective way to address the opioid epidemic.

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