July 28: U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigation to Hold a Hearing on “America’s Growing Heroin Epidemic”

Press Release July 26, 2015
Media Contact

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<p>Emily Kaltenbach 505-920-5256<br />
Grant Smith 202-683-2884</p>

On Tuesday, a congressional panel will hold a hearing on “America’s Growing Heroin Epidemic.”  Every year, federal and state lawmakers spend billions of dollars to lock up people who use and sell small amounts of heroin and other illegal drugs. Yet, heroin use and overdose rates have surged in recent years, and its prevalence has ballooned beyond urban centers into suburban and rural areas. A bipartisan consensus has emerged in Congress in favor of reforming America’s criminal justice system and finding innovative new solutions that can help prevent people accused of low-level crimes from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.

“Heavy handed policing does nothing to address the underlying reasons why people use drugs,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs. “LEAD empowers police officers to be a part of the solution when it comes to addressing the underlying reasons why people use heroin and other drugs.”  

Angela Pacheco, New Mexico’s First Judicial District Attorney, has been invited to be a witness for the Democratic House Minority to speak to New Mexico’s opioid – heroin and prescription pain reliever – crisis and to describe LEAD, a comprehensive new strategy that Northern New Mexico has engaged to more effectively address opioid-related crime.

New Mexico's drug overdose death rate has been one of the highest in the nation for most of the last two decades. New Mexico's unintentional overdose death rate has almost tripled since 1990, and though in recent years the state has seen a decrease in rates, in 2014 overdose death rates increased 20%. New Mexico is second to West Virginia in the number of overdose drug deaths in the U.S.

In 2014, Santa Fe became the second city in the nation after the city of Seattle to implement LEAD in an attempt to address low-level crime and reduce, where possible, the involvement of a criminal justice system that often seems stacked against poor and minority defendants. Albany, NY will become the 3rd jurisdiction to implement LEAD with their program starting in 2016.

Under LEAD, police officers exercise discretion to divert individuals for low-level criminal offenses (including drug possession and low-level sales) to a case manager and a comprehensive network of services instead of booking them and initiating the charging process.  LEAD fosters true partnership between police and the communities they serve. An independent evaluation found that it reduced the likelihood of reoffending by nearly 60% compared to a control group that went through the criminal justice system “as usual.”

On July 2nd, government officials and community leaders from over 30 city, county and state jurisdictions attended a day-long workshop about LEAD, co-hosted by major foundations and The White House. The LEAD model is consistent with the recommendations from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing that law enforcement agencies “emphasize . . . alternatives to arrest or summons in situations where appropriate.”

What:  Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations Subcommittee holds a hearing on “America’s Growing Heroin Epidemic.”
When:  Tuesday, July 28, 2015 at 10:00 AM
Location:  2141 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C.

Santa Fe’s LEAD program was developed after nine months of study and community engagement and is tailored to the community’s needs. Unlike Seattle, Santa Fe’s main concerns are not drug markets, but rather opioid misuse, dependence and overdose, as well as rising rates of property crime. Eligibility for Santa Fe LEAD is limited to those caught possessing or selling three grams or less of opioids.

LEAD’s successes and positive evaluations have sparked widespread attention and interest, especially in a moment when the police role in dealing with “quality of life” issues is controversial and the way forward after the War on Drugs is uncertain. Numerous other jurisdictions around the country – from small cities to major metropolitan areas – are now exploring implementing LEAD.

After three years of operation in Seattle, a new, independent evaluation has shown that LEAD reduces the number of people arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, and otherwise caught up in the criminal justice system. The University of Washington evaluation found that LEAD participants were 60% less likely to be rearrested within the first six months of the study and 58% less likely to be rearrested during the entire course of the evaluation to date, compared to a control group that experienced  “system as usual” booking and prosecution. This result is particularly encouraging based on the high re-arrest rate for this population under the traditional criminal justice model.

This Committee should advance federal legislation that would authorize funding to support the implementation of pilot LEAD initiatives by jurisdictions desiring a new approach to low-level nonviolent crime.

“As our understanding of drug use and addiction evolves, our policies must evolve with it,” said Emily Kaltenbach, State Director of Drug Policy Alliance’s New Mexico Office.  “Programs like LEAD can help unwind the ineffective War on Drugs, and can grow to be a cornerstone in 21st century policing efforts.”

“I would like to come to work one day and discover that the majority of criminal cases in our office are not related to drug addiction,” stated Angela Pacheco, District Attorney for New Mexico's First Judicial District.  "The LEAD program is a step in that direction."

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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