The Ridgeland Police Department has partnered with the Mississippi Harm Reduction initiative to prevent recidivism and provide services for city residents in need.
Police Chief John Neal said he and other representatives from the department went to Seattle in January for training on a harm reduction program. Upon returning to Ridgeland, they sat down and began to analyse the most common types of offenders in the city.
“We began to look at who we were incarcerating and for what reasons,” Neal said. “We tried to develop our program based on what our needs are strictly for Ridgeland. Basically, what we’re doing is initiated by officers out in the field.”
For example, an officer makes a traffic stop for a speeding violation. Upon approaching the driver, the officer discovers that their driver’s license is suspended and they do not have a tag on their car.
Ridgeland’s policy is that if an officer writes three or more traffic citations at once, a custody arrest is required. This includes incarceration, the booking process, the driver’s vehicle is towed, and if they cannot post bail, they go into the county jail.
With a harm reduction system in place, officers are empowered to dig deeper to find out the root of the problem, such as if there is a financial hardship preventing them from purchasing a tag.
“If it’s the school of hard knocks and you’ve been dealt bad blows and haven’t had a chance to do it yet or are trying to figure out how, then we will defer you over to the Mississippi Harm Reduction,” Neal said.
While these services are meant to prevent recidivism and aid a person through the process, Neal said it is not a “get out of jail free” card. A case file will still be created and citations will still be issued.
However, prior to any court action, the harm reduction initiative will help the person figure out how to pay old fines, help negotiate a payment plan with the court, and do what they can to help prepare for a driver’s test. These are just a few of the services offered.
“So, hopefully we don’t criminalize people who are stuck in a rut,” Neal said. “What we’re trying to do is, all these people who don’t have driver’s licenses, insurance on their cars or let those tags lapse or have old fines that haven’t been paid, we’re going to divert you to the program to put you on a management plan to get these negative things in your life fixed so you can be a productive member.”
The program will aid lower offense, misdemeanor crimes, such as traffic citations. Low level narcotics users could be connected with mental health services or to look into treatment options for addiction.
“We want to treat those problems so that we can get treatment for people to kick drug habits,” he said.
“We are hoping to make a positive impact on the community by offering these services for people who have the need,” he said.
Whoever is diverted, must take ownership of their actions and work with the program to address these issues.
“It could be a single mom who has three children who is shoplifting diapers,” Neal said. “We would put her in touch so she could get workforce training to get her back in the workforce.”
Neal said this is at the officer’s discretion, as they will do an assessment while interacting with the perpetrator and determine their need. If they fit the requirements to be eligible for the program, an officer will give them a business card with contact information.
The person will have 72 hours to contact the program and begin a case management plan, as they will still have a court date to meet within two weeks.
Someone will represent them in court and present the case plan.
One resident has already benefited from the program, as a case was diverted to harm reduction last week, and a man was able to complete a drug detox, according to Neal.