More drug users getting treatment instead of jail in Tucson

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Hundreds of Tucson residents wrestling with substance abuse are getting treatment instead of jail under a program funded with federal grants.

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Law enforcement officials say they have seen a payoff in the past year from investing in treatment rather than incarceration for opioid-addicted suspects in low-level drug-related crimes. A Pima County "deflection" program has kept hundreds of drug-users out of jail and saved taxpayers thousands of dollars.

"Just by the numbers, it has far exceeded our expectations," Police Assistant Chief Kevin Hall told the Arizona Daily Star. "My goal was to do one a day for the year, and we're obviously way over that, which I'm very happy with."

More than 500 people have been "deflected" since the program started being offered in July 2018. Taxpayers saved $178,000 in the fiscal year that ended June 30 just in what the costs would have been to book those individuals into jail, the newspaper reported. In addition, it costs about $100 per inmate per day after that. But the amount of money spent on bookings doesn't affect overall jail operating costs, Pima County Chief Deputy Byron Gwaltney said.

The focus on drug treatment arose when Hall saw similar programs being implemented on the East Coast in 2017. The police department began a six-month pilot program in two divisions the following year. Drug users could come to police and ask to be put in a program or get a referral from a caseworker. Officers could also recommend a suspect caught with 2 grams of opioids or less for treatment.

More than 100 people went for treatment within four months. As a result, the county received $1.4 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to expand the program. The county, Tucson police and other social service organizations joined efforts. The result was the United Medication Assisted Treatment Targeted Engagement Response, or U-MATTER. With the funding, the program added two drug counselors to pair up with officers trained in mental health calls.

Hall, the assistant chief, said some officers are "a little less than enthusiastic," but many who are out in the field believe deflection works.

"There's no treatment in jail; they simply get released and go back to using, and it's just over and over and over," Hall said. "I think the officers are sophisticated enough to see that that just is not working."

The department is also trying to publicize that people can turn themselves in and get immunity for drugs or paraphernalia possession if they are seeking treatment.

Billi Semprevivo, 40, said deflection has been life-saving for her. Semprevivo has struggled with meth and heroin addiction for years. She was given the option of treatment after officers caught her shoplifting food from a Tucson convenience store in December. She relapsed three months ago and went back to the same transitional living facility where she had been treated. She said she remains committed to maintaining her sobriety.

"You're not going to get help on the streets," Semprevivo said. "You need different surroundings and different people."


Information from: Arizona Daily Star,