Diverting Opioid Addicts Away from Criminal Justice and Toward Treatment

In 2016, the Chicago Police Department developed a pilot pre-arrest diversion strategy, the Westside Narcotics Diversion and Treatment Initiative (WNDTI), to respond to the opioid crisis in underserved Chicago neighborhoods. The goal was to encourage police officers to redirect low-level drug offenders (users and sellers) to treatment, instead of jail and prosecution. This strategy was modeled after a promising program in Seattle, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD).

However, Chicago’s target population differs significantly from the one served by Seattle’s LEAD program. Thus, the Chicago Police Department partnered with the University of Chicago's Crime and Health Lab to evaluate and test the expansion of its diversion strategy. Researchers there will focus on three questions:

  1. Does diversion to treatment for individuals who experience substance use disorders impact health outcomes?
  2. Is diversion more cost effective for the community than incarceration?
  3. Can the lessons learned from this program help improve health equity on a larger scale?

Within the last several years, views on substance abuse have shifted, with law enforcement recognizing substance abuse as a public health issue, rather than a purely criminal justice issue. Many other cities are piloting harm reduction interventions, and this rigorous evaluation should support them in their efforts to design effective policies and programs.