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Many arrests are rooted in behavioral health issues. Can this program be an alternative for the Pittsburgh region? – PublicSource | #coronavirus | #scams | #covid19


At the Foundation of HOPE, Jody Raeford is looking to ensure community members aren’t arrested for behaviors rooted in unmet behavioral health needs.

The nonprofit works to prevent youth and young adults in the North Side from entering the criminal justice system for committing a low-level, first-time offense, such as theft. Through referrals from police officers, family members and other partners, the foundation connects residents ages 12 through 26 with mental health services or mentors as part of a voluntary program.

“We’re looking at systemic change,” said Raeford, the organization’s executive director. “We’re looking at, ‘how can we affect our local community so that people are not getting arrested for things that have nothing to do with criminality?’”

The diversion program lasts about six months, and charges are typically dropped afterward, Raeford said. Of the 54 residents who participated in the program in 2019, 53 did not reoffend within six months, an expectation of the program.

Now, the Foundation of HOPE is planning to expand its diversion services beyond youth. The city announced in late July that it will receive funding alongside the Congress of Neighboring Communities [CONNECT] to develop a pre-arrest diversion program for adults who commit low-level offenses. Zone 1 in the North Side will serve as the site of a pilot program, which the foundation will manage.

The city’s announcement comes amid residents’ continued calls for fundamental changes to policing following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Though diversion may address the harms of over-policing on Black and Brown communities and individuals with behavioral health needs, advocates and community members note that the success of these programs depends on implementation and buy-in from police and other stakeholders.

The Foundation of HOPE will work with individuals who have mental health and substance use disorders, as well as those experiencing hunger and homelessness, Raeford said. Of those incarcerated in Allegheny County Jail, 75% had a mental health or substance use disorder, and 48% had both, according to data from December 2015.

The pre-arrest diversion program is intended to eventually extend throughout Pittsburgh and, with CONNECT, into surrounding areas, the city stated in a press release July 20.

“When you think about homelessness, and you think about people with [substance use disorders] and food insecurity and mental health — those issues don’t know geographic boundaries,” Raeford said. “We really have to really be looking at this as a regional challenge.”

‘A different response’

One model for diversion is law enforcement assisted diversion, or LEAD. As opposed to entering residents into the criminal justice system, police officers in LEAD programs redirect individuals to interventions meant to reduce harm, according to the LEAD National Support Bureau. Community members are connected with a trauma-informed intensive case management program that often includes supports such as housing and drug treatment.

The program that Pittsburgh and CONNECT are pursuing, which is focused on public health and harm reduction, will provide support to individuals who frequently come in contact with law enforcement specifically for low-level crimes related to poverty.

The LEAD National Support Bureau paid for a group of representatives from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, the Allegheny County Health Department [ACHD], Foundation of HOPE and CONNECT to attend the first LEAD National Learning Conference in January.





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