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Program aims to seek treatment over jail time

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Shane Price has spent the past nine years in prison.

In 2010, the 23-year-old with a history of mental illness and drug addiction became the poster boy for then-Mayor Richard Berry’s crackdown on property crime when he was sentenced to 30 years in prison for residential burglary, auto burglary, identity theft and other crimes.

Starting this week, those in similar circumstances may have an opportunity to instead get clean and sober and on medication rather than be incarcerated.

Bernalillo County, in partnership with the Division of Behavioral Health Services, the Sheriff’s Office, the City of Albuquerque and the Albuquerque Police Department, the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the Law Offices of the Public Defender, has launched a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program to divert low-level property crime offenders from the criminal justice system and into treatment instead. The LEAD program began in Seattle in 2011 and has since spread to several other cities around the country, including Santa Fe in 2013.

Bernalillo County began seriously thinking about participating about 18 months ago after hearing about positive results in Santa Fe.

“It’s an evidence-based way of addressing crime in Albuquerque,” said Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins. “If you look at all the data, heavier penalties don’t change behavior. But intervention has the potential to reduce crime.”

Starting July 2, Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies will identify possible candidates for the program in the South Valley – an area with more property crime and drug abuse than other parts of the county.

Sheriff Manuel Gonzales said he expects to eventually have 30 deputies trained in the program.

City Councilor Pat Davis said they plan to expand the program into his district in Southeast Albuquerque, but the police department needs to get all procedures approved by the Department of Justice.

When law enforcement officers encounter someone struggling with mental illness or substance abuse – either in the commission of a crime or through a call for service – they will contact the District Attorney’s Office and a LEAD case worker to see if the person would be better served by getting treatment.

One caseworker has already been hired for the program, but the county hopes to eventually employ more. The caseworkers will each have a case load of about 25 clients, according to Julie Morgas Baca, the county manager.

Morgas Baca stressed that while the program will help defendants who are in need of treatment, it is not a “get out of jail free card.”

“Participants really, really have to be committed to recovery,” she said at a news conference Tuesday. “That’s the key to it all. If a LEAD participant commits another crime, or they fail to complete the program, charges will be filed against them.”

Initial funding for the program came through a national grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Urban Institute’s Innovation Fund that provided $50,000, according to a news release from the county. The state Legislature also allocated $189,714 for the program.

It is one of 19 programs under Bernalillo County’s Behavioral Health Initiative launched after the 2014 election.

Hart Stebbins said that in other cities, the program has proved to have positive ripple effects and reduce criminal behavior of people addicted to drugs or who have serious mental illness.

“Many of the most complex challenges for our community are tied together,” she said. “Untreated behavioral health conditions, substance abuse, homelessness and crime, and these issues are felt across our community. The intent of the LEAD program is to make our community safer.”