A narcotics arrest diversion program is expanding to three more Chicago Police Department districts, including Austin’s 15th District.

With more than 1,000 people dying from opioid-related overdoses in 2019, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, the expansion can’t come soon enough for some.

Started in 2018, the program was launched by the University of Chicago Urban Labs and partnered with Thresholds, an addiction recovery agency, as a way to divert individuals apprehended for opioid-related offenses into treatment.

“People are getting arrested for a small amount of that substance and are in need of support,” said Tim Devitt, associate vice president of Thresholds. “It’s a problem that needs to be addressed, and diversion provides a pathway to recovery.”

Devitt said individuals can meet with Thresholds staff at the police station and be screened for recovery treatment, as long as they are willing.

“It’s all about having people in your life that will support recovery and support you not using a substance,” Devitt said. “It’s all the more important to offer alternatives and ways for people to get support for their dependence.”

Founded in 1959, Thresholds offers an array of clinical services and housing to individuals with severe mental illnesses and substance use disorders throughout Illinois. Since they started partnering with the Chicago Police Department, Thresholds has been able to help divert 333 people from arrests to substance abuse treatment.

State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (9th) said the diversion programs sends a strong message to the general public about how people should not be punished for their illness.

“This really helps us change the narrative about people with substance use disorders,” Ford said. “We need to make sure that we divert those people to a place that is going to help them because they might relapse.”

Having seen family members like his mother struggle with substance use disorders and not be employable, Ford said arrest diversion is a more humane approach to deal with opioid-related cases.

“This program definitely puts people on the right path,” Ford said. “I think that my family and people that I know who have criminal records due to their struggles with substance abuse disorders would not be in a situation where they have felonies and not be employable.”

As reported in August 2019, Ford secured $350,000 in state grant money for naloxone, the overdose reversal drug, and introduced House Bill #3879, legislation that would protect any Good Samaritan from arrest if they seek emergency medical assistance for someone experiencing an overdose.

Ford also chairs the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force, a neighborhood organization dedicated to educating residents and businesses on preventing drug overdoses, which partners with other Westside groups like Prevention Partnership Inc. and the Lawndale Christian Health Center.

The task force held a community meeting for people to share their experiences with substance abuse on March 6, at the Lawndale Christian Health Center, 3750 W. Ogden Ave.