Increasing Alternatives to Arrest and Prosecution, Especially Mental Health and Drug Treatment

The Problem

Police officers and prosecutors often come in contact with individuals who would be better served with responses outside the criminal justice system. Often, police and prosecutors are the sole responders in these cases. Unfortunately, law enforcement usually lacks readily available alternatives beyond arrest and prosecution. Today, more than 50 percent of prison and jail inmates have a diagnosed mental illness, and 65 percent of prisoners meet medical criteria for substance abuse and addiction. Many of these individuals need treatment, not arrest and jail time. The criminal justice system cannot serve as a treatment plan, and in many cases, exacerbates illnesses and addictions.

Our Solution

Law Enforcement Leaders supports policy and practice changes within law enforcement agencies that offer alternatives to arrest and prosecution. We urge police departments and prosecutors’ offices to adopt policies that prioritize mental health and drug treatment instead of arrests and prosecution, when law enforcement has the discretion to choose this alternative and it would not harm public safety. We also support training of law enforcement to recognize individuals in need of these alternatives.

Law Enforcement Leaders urges federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to provide their officers and prosecutors with alternatives to address mental illness and addiction outside of the justice system. We will identify and highlight programs that reduce both crime and incarceration. By addressing the underlying cause of criminal activity, such programs successfully reduce repeat criminal activity and are more cost-effective than incarceration.


Several departments have already made progress:

  • Seattle, Washington. Started in 2011, Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program allows law enforcement to send individuals arrested for low-level drug offenses to treatment and support services rather than booking and charging them. The program has proven results. LEAD participants are 58 percent less likely to be arrested again than those processed through the system.
  • Miami-Dade County, Florida. Miami’s Criminal Mental Health Project (CMHP) provides training for police officers to better understand how best to help people suffering from serious mental health crises. In 2013, Miami police arrested only 9 of more than 10,000 people in response to mental health calls – opting to bring most of them to crisis stabilization centers instead of jail. The significant reduction in arrests allowed the county to close one of its five jails. CMHP also offers treatment instead of prison for people arrested for non-serious crimes who suffer from a mental illness. Participants in these CMHP programs are 58 percent less likely to be arrested than those who did not participate.