TRENTON – Using $6 million in federal funds, the state will establish a program giving police officers discretion to forego criminal charges for some repeat offenders and instead direct them to community-based programs to address their underlying issues.

The ‘Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion’ program, or LEAD, will be established in six locations. It will focus on people engaging in low-level crimes driven by problems with addiction, poverty and mental health.

Acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin said LEAD will help build public trust in law enforcement and keep at-risk people out of the criminal justice system.

“In many instances, low-level crime is the product of poverty, addiction or mental illness,” Platkin said. “The LEAD program provides law enforcement with a tool to divert certain individuals, where appropriate, away from the criminal justice system and toward the services that will improve outcomes for them and their communities.”

Kelly Levy, acting director of NJ CARES, short for the Office of the New Jersey Coordinator for Addiction Responses and Enforcement Strategies, said the program “builds an ‘off ramp’ from the criminal justice system” for people who aren’t taking advantage of available safety-net services.

“Instead of locking them up, officers may look beyond the symptoms and get at the root causes of their criminal behaviors and alter the systemic cycle for those individuals,” Levy said.

Police can direct people to services such as medication-assisted therapy, health and safety resources, food, housing, legal advocacy and job training.

LEAD was created in Seattle in 2011 and now exists in 20 other states.

The funding for the two-year program comes from the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Sites will be identified by the end of 2022, with priority given to areas disproportionately impacted by the abuse of opioids, stimulants and other substances. Criteria will include admissions for treatment, overdose deaths and a lack of providers and emergency medical services.

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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