Why a Seattle Police Program Wants to Keep Low-Level Drug Offenders Out of Jail

PHOTO: Turina James told ABC News "Nightline" she first tried heroin at 17, after the death of her 1-year-old son.PlayAdam Desiderio/ABC
WATCH Why a Police Program Wants to Keep Drug Offenders Out of Jail

In the war on drugs, Seattle police are on the frontlines, capturing users addicted to crack cocaine and heroin.

The United States is currently in one of the worst heroin epidemics in history. Heroin deaths have skyrocketed from 2002 to 2013, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But in Seattle, where heroin has been a problem for decades, authorities are taking a new approach with the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program.

“Decisions have been made to not incarcerate -- and for the right reason -- low-level drug offenders. You can’t jail or incarcerate your way out of a problem,” LEAD Officer Leslie Mills told ABC News' "Nightline."

LEAD, the first program of its kind in the U.S., includes a specially trained group of officers who have the option of keeping low-level drug offenders out of jail and instead putting them onto a path to recovery. It's all part of a radical new idea that treats drug addiction as a disease, hoping a reduction in crime will follow.

"They're not bad people -- the people that are using -- they're being victimized by these drug dealers that are preying on their addictions. Of course they're not going to get better," LEAD officer Felix Reyes told "Nightline."

PHOTO: As part of the LEAD program, police officers Victor Maes and Lesley Mills are tasked with getting to know users in the Seattle neighborhood Belltown and target those most at risk.ABC News
As part of the LEAD program, police officers Victor Maes and Lesley Mills are tasked with getting to know users in the Seattle neighborhood Belltown and target those most at risk.

As part of the program, the specially trained officers are tasked with getting to know users in the Seattle neighborhood Belltown and focus on those most at risk.

"Jail's always been the answer. We as officers think, 'Great, we did our job. He's gone. Now it's the jail's problem. It's the court's problem,'" LEAD officer Victor Maes told "Nightline." "And basically they get right out and they are on the same path they were before. That's what's good about LEAD."

Users who join LEAD get a counselor like Najja Morris. Morris works with the police to make sure users are supported in recovery and to help users feel part of society again by finding them housing and medical care even if they continue to abuse drugs.

"There are no requirements for us to work for you or with you. I'm going to work just as hard for you if you decided that you're not ready to stop using drugs because you're not at that point," Morris told "Nightline." "We work for them and show up for them, and eventually they decide they're going to work and show up for themselves."

PHOTO: Najja Morris works with the Seattle police as part of the LEAD program.ABC News
Najja Morris works with the Seattle police as part of the LEAD program.

One of Morris' clients is Turina James, whose hand is badly injured from shooting heroin at an early age. James told "Nightline" she first tried heroin at 17, after the death of her 1-year-old son.

"It took all the pain and sorrow, that sadness. Everything went away and I didn't feel nothing. I was numb," James, 46, said.

She became addicted, giving birth to her second child, Deanna James Lopez, while high.

Lopez said she was a teenager when she first found out her mom was high when she was born. "She just told me. 'You know, I'm not well right now,' and I didn't understand," Lopez, 25, told "Nightline." She recalled thinking, "Just stop. Just fix it. Why can't she fix it?"

"And the reality is it doesn't work that way," Lopez said.

Last year, James was arrested on a drug charge, and police gave her a chance to join LEAD. Morris set up a small motel room for her to live in. Before joining LEAD, James said she slept in a small cubby hole in the side of a building.

"I'd say this was the breaking point for me, and that's why that day I went ahead and said, you know, 'I want some help,'" James said.

PHOTO: With drug dealers on nearly every corner, Najja Morris keeps a watchful eye on Turina James.ABC News
With drug dealers on nearly every corner, Najja Morris keeps a watchful eye on Turina James.

With drug dealers on nearly every corner, Morris keeps a watchful eye on James.

"She can [tell me anything], and she knows that. She doesn't lie because there's no reason to," Morris said. "She doesn't lie because there's not going to be a hammer if she does, so she can tell me the truth."

"It's so hard to get off drugs. It's so hard," James said. "If I go to treatment, I get out. I'm clean. They send me right back to the street, or they send me to a housing that I'm not going to be able to comply with but most of the time you go back to the street."

In the four years since the LEAD program began, overall drug crime in Belltown has dropped, according to authorities. LEAD clients are 34 to 58 percent less likely than other addicts to commit new crimes -- from shoplifting to breaking into cars -- to support their habit, and the program is being replicated throughout the country.

Not all users are eligible for LEAD. Most violent offenders with felony convictions are not chosen for the program.

"It's about preventing crime. It's about stopping things from happening. And it isn't that that individual is the problem. It's that they're the ones that are taking up your 911 service call," Mills said. "They're the ones in your hospitals. They're the ones in your treatment beds, so you have to look at each individual and find out 'Why are you here? Why do you remain here?'"

"The amount of money it takes to funnel the addicts through the system simply for being addicted is way more and is actually costing taxpayers more dollars, more than what this program is costing to give them an opportunity to actually do something different with their life than to sit in a prison cell or a jail cell," Morris said.

PHOTO: I tell her quite frequently, I forgive you, Turina James daughter Deanna James Lopez said. ABC News
"I tell her quite frequently, 'I forgive you,'" Turina James' daughter Deanna James Lopez said.

A few months after "Nightline" first met her, James is now on methadone and working to rebuild her relationship with her daughter.

"I tell her quite frequently, 'I forgive you,'" Lopez said. "I wish she just saw how wonderful she really is because I think the day she does see it is the day that she'll be alright."

"I was a happy mom, a happy wife, and right now I'm, you know, I'm getting back to myself, but I'm still a little bit of a struggle and [I have] a little bit of a road ahead of me, you know, to get there," James said. "But I will get there again."