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Deflecting Opioid Sufferers From the Justice System ‘Can Save Lives,’ Experts Say

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The criminal justice system and public health system have been overwhelmed by individuals suffering from opioid addiction, and often police officers are the only first responders available 24/7 to address the problem, according to Frank G. Cousins Jr., a retired Massachusetts police sheriff.

“Our emergency rooms are busier than bar rooms,” Cousins told a panel at John Jay College. “How does the criminal justice system deal with that?”

Frank Cousins Jr

Frank Cousins Jr. Photos by John Ramsey/TCR

Speaking at the 14th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America Friday, he argued that the best way  of helping opioid addicts and other substance abusers  was to “deflect” them to community-based counseling and health services rather than arrest them.

Cousins, who was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives before he became sheriff of Essex County, Mass., said law enforcement agencies around the country could play a critical role in diverting opioid sufferers from the justice system.

He noted that in 2018, first responders treated over 16,000 opioid users in Massachusetts, and around 2,000 died.

Cousins was joined by  Jac Charlier of the TASC Center for Health and Justice , a program that offers training in diversion programs;  and Leslie Balonick, a former vice president at WestCare Foundation, a non-profit offering behavioral health services, in a discussion of what the panelists described as an emerging innovative approach to substance abusers and mentally ill individuals who often become entangled in the justice system.

The approach, known as “deflection,” has already  begun to take hold in several regions of the country, they said.

Currently, 750 police departments across the country are using deflection programs, the conference was told.

“We believe it’s an exciting collaboration,” said panel moderator Aviva Kurash of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).

Not only can it improve community-police relations, but it “can save lives,” Kurash said.

Leslie Balonick

Leslie Balonick

Balonick argued the only way to create change is for people on the ground (police officers, social workers and mental health providers) to build relationships with the drug-addicted population.

She recalled an instance of success when she was working in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood: A gang leader came up to her and said “Hey Ms. Drug Lady, we heard about you.”

Balonick  said she was worried that the young man would tell her to stay away.

“But then he said, ‘will you help my little brother so he doesn’t go down the same path I did?’”

Balonick and her colleagues at WestCare went into parks, pools and recreational centers to identify individuals who needed help, acting as a go-between for community members wary of involvement with the police.

She contended that, by treating people with dignity and respect, mental health care providers can achieve desirable outcomes.

“You have to understand the culture of addiction in those families, and let them know you care by your behavior and your actions—not giving up on people because they can’t always do what they said they were going to do,” said Balonick, who is now president of Balonick & Associates, a Chicago-based consulting firm that provides training on pre-arrest diversion.

“Even after an overdose, asking ‘are you ok? we were worried about you,’ makes a difference.”

However, one obstacle noted by Charlier of TASC, was the resistance of  some law enforcement personnel who maintained they did not “become police officers to hand someone off to treatment.”

Jac Charlier

Jac Charlier

Almost as much of a challenge as changing the culture of policing, he added, is finding sufficient social services available around the clock around which police can refer them to.

“We don’t have enough places to send people,” he said.

When it comes to deflection, because it’s done at street level, it needs to happen at 2 a.m and the treatment supervisor “better be there at 2 a.m,” Charlier said.

“That’s the grand element of treatment. A person can’t wait a few weeks. There needs to be real-time access to treatment and housing.”

Megan Hadley is a senior staff reporter for The Crime Report

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