Atlantans Had Productive White House Visit for LEAD Symposium


SNAP DC(APN) ATLANTA — On July 02 and 03, 2015, police officers, prosecutors, elected officials, community leaders and healthcare professionals from more than thirty U.S. cities gathered in Washington, D.C. to discuss the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program.


As previously, exclusively reported by Atlanta Progressive News, Atlanta Councilman Kwanza Hall (District 2); Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard; Atlanta Police Deputy Chief Joseph Spillane; and Xochitl Bervera, Co-Director, Racial Justice Action Center, were invited to attend the LEAD program at the White House.


LEAD is an innovative program out of Seattle, Washington, that is creating new drug policies grounded in science, health, and human rights.  It diverts folks who commit low-level drug offenses and prostitution-related crimes to health based case management services, and away from the criminal justice system.


“This group, my counterparts from around the country… are trying to get people to embrace a new paradigm from their traditional way of addressing problems.  They keep arresting the same people over and over, they know it’s not working.  Even the prosecutors in the room were saying we need another solution,” Councilman Hall told APN.


“I was impressed with the fact the White House appreciated this approach to figuring out a solution to mass incarceration,” Hall said.


The White House Urban Affairs officer emphasised the LEAD program is a priority for President Obama and asked the participants to go back to their cities and find a way to make it happen.


There is a growing awareness among police officers, prosecutors, judges, and community leaders  that the current “war on drugs” and  “get tough on crime” is not working but is actually hurting society by creating criminals and destroying lives and families.  It has lead to the mass incarceration of millions of citizens for low level drug use and minor infractions of the law.


“A lot of times, it is worse for them [in jail] than it was prior to their arrest.  When you put someone, who smokes marijuana, in with a bunch of real criminals, you may get a real criminal out.  As law enforcement professional, we have to look at other options to incarceration.  LEAD may be one of those programs we can put in our toolbox that can help certain people in certain situations,” Deputy Chief Joseph Spillane told APN.


The news is full stories of minor infractions of the law that result in jail time.


For example in Augusta, Georgia, a young man was sentenced to twelve months in jail for stealing a can of beer worth less than two dollars.


In Gainesville, Georgia, a young woman was incarcerated for two months while a dirty spoon found in her bag was analyzed for methamphetamine.  The lab results showed that she was guilty of eating Spaghetti O’s with the spoon.


Other people have gone to jail because they did not have the money to pay for fines, like rolling a stop sign, or burning leaves in their own yard.


These minor infractions are destroying lives because while incarcerated, people lose jobs, apartments, and homes.  Also, taxpayers are paying a heavy price for these asinine arrests and incarcerations.


In Mayor Kasim Reed’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget, the City of Atlanta plans to raise an extra seven million dollars from increased traffic fines and fees.


Policing for profit helps pay for the vast criminal justice complex, but can land a person in jail, especially if they cannot afford to pay the every growing fines and fees.


“Why are we building our court budget off the number of tickets we can write and the number of failure to appear that we are sending out?  It baffles me,” Hall said.


The United States incarcerates more people than any place on the planet.  Georgia–if one includes parole and probation in the calculation–has more people in the criminal justice system then any state in the nation.


The overcriminalization of U.S. citizens has reached pathological proportions.  LEAD is one solution to stopping this madness.


“We know what a failure the drug war has been.  In Atlanta, we see 462 individuals responsible for fourteen thousand arrests.  The arrest, probation, jail revolving door cycle is not working for anyone,” Xochitl Bervera, Co-Director of Racial Justice Action Center, previously told APN.


Many doctors and health care professionals have known for years that drug use is a health issue, not a criminal justice issue.


Many current drug programs and drug courts kick addicts out when they relapse.  With this type of abstinence-only policy, addicts are doomed to fail, which supports the mass incarnation system with a revolving door from jail to probation and back to jail.


LEAD understands that a place to live; a job; and addressing health issues, friends, and self-respect are more important than the outcome of a drug test.


LEAD emphasizes harm reduction, and individual and community wellness, rather than a focus on sobriety.


In Seattle, the diversion of individuals into social services has cut recidivism by 60 percent; saves taxpayers money; avoids the expensive court-based interventions; and helps people live more productive lives.  It is a win, win, win, win policy.


The money saved from not incernationing people can pay for their treatment.  Jail is the most expensive and least effective way to deal with drug crimes.


“We want to look at the program for minor drug possession and prostitution charges… It’s important for law enforcement from across the country, as well as our legislators, to look at alternatives to incarceration.  We know it is expensive to incarcerate people,” Spillane told APN.


In Georgia, for possession of one ounce or less of cannabis outside of the limited CBD oil exemption, a person can be sentenced up to one year in jail and fined one thousand dollars.  Georgia legislators are reluctant to decriminalize marijuana even though a recent poll found that sixty two percent of Georgia voters favored decriminalization.


“It’s a first step to look at the program.  No decisions have been made yet, but we are exploring our options.  The program could be implemented in a different way here than it is in Seattle,” Spillane said.


APN was unable to get an interview with Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard.


However, in a Twitter post on the Solutions not Punishment Twitter page, Howard said, “I’m in 200% to make this happen and change our current system.”