In 2016, we lost 561 Louisianans to drug overdoses. Heroin and synthetic opioid deaths have increased drastically since 2012. As a state, our incarceration rate is nearly double the national average. The most common conviction in Louisiana is drug possession.
We know addiction is a public health issue, yet we continue to lock people up for addiction-, mental illness-, and trauma-related behaviors. Our communities are destabilized by over-incarceration, particularly communities of color. Meanwhile, the number of people dying from overdoses in Louisiana continues to climb. Something has to change.
Thankfully, many of our elected officials are committed to solving these crises. Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a package of bills last summer to reduce the prison population by 10 percent in 10 years, while pledging to reinvest the estimated $262 million in savings to community programs that reduce recidivism and support crime victims. State prosecutors have partnered with the Louisiana Ambulance Alliance on an extensive public awareness campaign, End the Epidemic LA, which includes a website full of detailed information on overdose prevention and treatment centers in every parish.
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy is a co-sponsor of the CARA 2.0 Act of 2018, a bill to increase public awareness of the opioid epidemic and to increase treatment availability. Our junior senator, John Kennedy, also helped secure more than $8 million in funding last year from the Centers for Disease Control to help fight the opioid epidemic in Louisiana.
But with a problem as widespread as opioid use and with overdoses continuing to rise, we must support new and innovative approaches. LEAD, or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is an approach we need in Louisiana, and which will be piloted this year in New Orleans.
LEAD allows police officers to divert people at risk for arrest because of mental illness, addiction, or trauma away from jail. They are then given a case manager, who coordinates with public defenders, law enforcement, social workers, treatment experts, and prosecutors to support real behavioral change.
Case managers thoroughly assess individuals and get at the root causes of risky behaviors. They work with participants to develop action plans to achieve their goals. This could mean drug treatment, overdose prevention training, housing, or education. The coordinated LEAD team works to offer a solution that avoids jail and enables the person to get their life back on track.
LEAD participants have shown to be 60 percent less likely to be rearrested, with demonstrated improvements in their physical and mental health. On top of that, LEAD has generated huge savings for taxpayers, as individuals can avoid the costly approach of court and incarceration.
My own father was in and out of rehab his entire life. He turned to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate untreated mental illness, with devastating consequences — first prison and then premature death. I often wonder how different our lives might have been if LEAD had been available to help him overcome his own struggles.
There are currently 31 states developing or operating a LEAD program. With assistance from the Vera Institute of Justice’s New Orleans office, the New Orleans Police and Health Departments will begin piloting LEAD this summer. But we need to expand eligibility and geographic scope as well as nurture LEAD programs across the state. The biggest obstacle in any city or town is funding.
In March, President Donald Trump signed a bill that allocated $2.5 million in funding for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). While this is a step in the right direction, the funding will need to be renewed this year and increased if LEAD is to fulfill its potential in New Orleans and spread to other parts of Louisiana. U.S. Reps. Mike Johnson and Steve Scalise have expressed support for the initiative; we need Sens. Cassidy and Kennedy to step up too.
LEAD is an innovative program that promotes a holistic, heath-centered approach. It shows we can reduce overdose deaths and safely reduce incarceration. Ultimately, we must embrace a public health approach if we are to make real progress and survive the overdose crisis.
Corinna Yazbek is the LEAD project manager in New Orleans with the Vera Institute of Justice, a national criminal justice advocacy group.