There’s no shortage of innovative methods states have explored to divert offenders away from jail and toward treatment-based solutions, whether it be through deferred prosecution, veterans’ courts or, most commonly, diversion through drug courts.

While these programs give discretion to prosecutors, judges and social workers, the role of police is all too often either underappreciated or even ignored. Police, who are the first line in the criminal-justice system, are best suited to evaluate risk on the street and do what they do best: protect and serve.

Police diversion programs do exist and they are not new. In 2011, Seattle launched Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion as a pilot program in the downtown neighborhood of Belltown. Through LEAD, individuals are carved out of the criminal-justice system and assigned caseworkers, who see that they receive a hot meal, clothing and shelter, as well as placement in short-term treatment facilities. Later, caseworkers help participants get stable housing and even employment, with services tailored to each individual.

Since its implementation, LEAD has been more successful than anyone predicted, reducing recidivism rates by up to 60 percent for its target demographic: the poor, chronic homeless, sex workers, drug users and low-level dealers. Former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn reports that 54 individuals were responsible for 2,700 of the Belltown bookings. “If drug dealing and crime could be solved by arrests alone, we would have solved this problem a couple thousand arrests ago,” McGinn said.

Under LEAD, officers decide whether a suspect is in need of treatment or jail. Those taken to treatment are permitted to leave, but with a warning that they will likely find their way back to police custody. Drug dealers and users are qualified for an officer’s discretion so long as they were not found carrying more than 3 grams of any given drug and have no felony convictions for violent or other serious offenses. Those involved with prostitution qualify for diversion so long as they were not promoting sex workers or exploiting minors.

This shift to diversion policing is not mutually exclusive from police reforms that have helped contribute to the decrease in crime rates across the United States. Police diversion does not mean an abandonment of directed patrols (“cops on dots”), problem-oriented policing, or even certain aspects of a “broken windows” strategy that addresses quality-of-life crimes.

However, they should strive to move from a warrior model of policing to a “guardian” one. Reforming police practices can have a major impact on jail populations because police can be given incentives to allocate their time and conduct their interactions with citizens in more collaborative ways that make communities safer. This likely will result in fewer arrests and jail admissions for conduct that does not endanger the public.

The government’s ability to arrest people is among its greatest powers. If the discussion begins with the assumption that everyone with whom police interact for suspected offenses must be brought to jail, we have missed an enormous opportunity to downsize the system and limit the role of government. Jail reform has to start with the police – Handcuffs are the first step in our bloated jail system. Thus, preventing that first step is key in any conversation about jail reform.

Despite declining rates of both crime and incarceration, the United States still reigns with the highest prison population rate in the world. A paradigm shift, through diversion programs like LEAD, would see police partnering with neighborhoods to strengthen the informal social controls that prevent crime. Diversion programs began as experiments that assigned prosecutors and judges the roles of social workers and counselors. These experiments have bloomed into thousands of programs across the country.

Image by Vladyslav Tsybulskyi