AUGUSTA — Mayors and police chiefs from across Maine urged lawmakers Thursday to help break the cycle of drug addiction and incarceration by funding a program to allow police to “divert” drug users away from the jails and toward treatment.

“We need to make a change in this state,” said Brewer Police Chief Perry Antone Sr. “If not, we need to be prepared to read obituaries.”

Lawmakers are considering a proposal that would create what is known as a “law enforcement assisted diversion,” or LEAD, program that aims to place low-level drug offenders in drug treatment and support programs rather than lock them up in a jail cell. The legislation, which was requested by mayors who are part of the Mayors’ Coalition on Jobs and Economic Development, seeks $2 million for eight pilot projects in communities around the state.

The proposal comes at a time when Maine and states across the country are struggling to respond to record numbers of heroin and opiate overdoses or deaths.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, told the Judiciary Committee that “the best response to heroin dependence remains an open question.” Communities participating in the pilot programs would be given flexibility to adapt their policing efforts as needed in the areas of enforcement, education and treatment.

But those communities also would be required to track the progress of participants – including recidivism rates – and report that data to the Legislature. Lawmakers can then use the information to direct state funding toward programs that work and away from those that do not.ƒ

“This bill allows local communities to take a leadership role in deciding the contours of that best path forward and report those findings to this committee,” said Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff.

PAST SUCCESSES, LACK OF FUNDING

The concept of police or the courts connecting drug addicts with treatment programs is nothing new. Maine has a drug court system with a stated mission of providing “strict accountability and specialized community-based treatment services to individuals with serious substance abuse disorders.”

But the recent surge in heroin and opiate abuse has spurred new interest in formalizing such diversion programs around the country.

Among the best-known diversion efforts is the LEAD program run by the Seattle Police Department, which has worked with several hundred low-level drug offenders since 2011. A University of Washington study released last year found that those involved in LEAD were 58 percent less likely to be arrested again than a comparative group of individuals not involved in the program.

Other cities have followed suit, and officials in Portland have explored instituting a LEAD program in Maine’s largest city since last summer’s spike in heroin overdoses, including one 24-hour period when rescue crews responded to 14 overdoses.

Last October, Scarborough police launched Operation Hope, modeled after a similar program in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that also has received national attention. Scarborough’s program invites anyone in possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia to bring them to the police station. Those who come forward aren’t arrested; instead, they surrender their drugs and are connected with treatment assistance, typically in other states.

Augusta recently started a similar program.

“It has all of the components in place for success but not the funding for treatment,” said Augusta Deputy Police Chief Jared Mills. “Where we run into issues is when we have someone come through the door and they need a bed. That funding just isn’t here in this area. This bill, L.D. 1488, would provide funding for that.”

EX-SUBSTANCE ABUSERS BACK BILL

Advocates for substance abuse treatment programs, as well as recovering addicts, waited hours to speak in support of the bill Thursday.

Mike Smith, a representative from the grassroots group Homeless Voices for Justice based at Portland’s Preble Street center, said programs such as LEAD have worked well in other states. A recovering alcoholic, Smith said he was able to turn his life around and avoid jail by accessing treatment when he needed it. But he sees many people struggling with drug addiction who are not so fortunate.

“I’m sick of people I know dying or spending months or years in prison,” he said.

Daniel Bell, a master’s of social work student at the University of New England, recounted for the committee how he pleaded guilty to a felony in order to avoid jail time and enter treatment. That felony conviction affects his ability to work and could become a barrier to obtaining a license as a social worker.

“I really wanted to stress that because I was able to avoid being incarcerated, that gave me the opportunity to be in treatment,” said Bell, who works as an adult case manager at The Opportunity Alliance in Portland. “In the ideal situation, there would have been a diversion program at the time that would have said, ‘Dan, we want you to enter treatment, and here is a certain time period to meet those conditions and we’ll drop those charges.’ ”

POLICE TO PANEL: FOLLOW OUR LEAD

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said the majority of inmates in the jail are grappling with mental health or substance abuse issues. He estimated that his jail staff provides detoxification or drug withdrawal services to 30 inmates every week, with medical personnel having to watch closely because “it is risky; they could die.”

Joyce said the LEAD pilot projects would give police, district attorneys and judges “the opportunity to really do some problem-solving.”

“The misnomer is once they are locked up and in jail, we fix them,” Joyce said of individuals with drug addictions. “The reality is, I’m not fixing them. Most individuals that are pretrial are there for an average of 27 days. I can’t begin to start any drug rehabilitation, nor can any other jail.”

Brewer’s police chief, Antone, recounted how his own attitude toward drug users has changed dramatically over his decades in law enforcement, from one of “lock them up” to realizing the importance of treatment.

“We need to change the way we are looking at this,” Antone said. “Law enforcement is making that change. We need the Legislature to make the change as well.”

The Judiciary Committee will hold a work session on the bill at a future date. If endorsed by the committee, it would have to go to the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee for review because of the $2 million cost.