SANTA FE – A study released Thursday shows an initial reduction in arrests and other promising results from a pioneering drug treatment program in New Mexico in which police refer nonviolent drug users to comprehensive counseling and social services instead of arresting them.
In 2014, Santa Fe became the second city in the nation after Seattle to implement the police-assisted diversion program for drug users that has since been adopted in at least 18 jurisdictions nationwide, with more preparing for launch.
The evaluation by the New Mexico Sentencing Commission and the University of New Mexico found an approximately 30 percent decrease in arrests during the first six months among drug users diverted to the program when compared with the previous six months.
The decrease in arrests did not last over a longer period of time, a pattern that advocates for the program said might be linked to a gradual reduction in attention to treatment.
Emily Kaltenbach, a member of the program’s oversight committee and state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, called the evaluation results encouraging and noted indications of cost savings over incarceration-based strategies.
Diversion program participants had no subsequent violent-crime charges, the evaluation said.
“I feel like we’re on the right track,” Kaltenbach said. “Sometimes people do drop off. ... We need to be working much closer, the case management workers and law enforcement officers, to identify who may not be engaged, to go find them on the streets.”
Abstinence from drug use is not required of diversion-program participants in Santa Fe and jurisdictions following the same “harm reduction” model.
The guiding principle favors investments in treatment and services for low-level drug offenders over arrest and prosecution, but little data have been available to gauge the effectiveness of the programs.
Political support for the diversion program in Santa Fe was on display Thursday at a news conference attended by Mayor Alan Webber, District Attorney Marco Serna and Police Chief Andrew Padilla – who all inherited the initiative from predecessors.
“We can’t arrest and incarcerate our way out of the opioid epidemic,” said Serna, who hopes the diversion program can be expanded throughout the state.
State employee Denise Herrera testified that the diversion program had provided a dignified way out of heroin use and toward a productive life for her 33-year-old son, a father of three.
“The nonjudgmental approach is what caught the attention of my son,” she said. “If you relapse, you’re not condemned, judged or thrown out.”
Police in Santa Fe have referred 177 people to the program. The study tracked results among 76 participants and interviewed a smaller group of 24 for their impressions.
Those interviews indicated a reduction in heroin use, more people in permanent housing, and improvements in several measures of well-being and mental health.
Santa Fe program manager Shelly Moeller said in a statement that more time is needed to adapt the program and meet initial goals, especially for opioid users who are prone to repeated relapses on their way to sobriety.