JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - When Angela Mallette of Mississippi Harm Reduction came to Ridgeland Chief John Neal and City Prosecutor Boty McDonald with the idea of the LEAD program, it didn’t sound like a fit at first.
Both Neal and McDonald were concerned they would have to be a franchise of a national model that just wasn’t cut out for Ridgeland, but then they were able to customize it. It’s tailored to fit Ridgeland exactly.
“We went back to what people are being incarcerated for and what people are coming back to court for, and the majority of the time it’s for traffic offenses and traffic violations and misdemeanor theft crime and stuff like that,” said Neal.
Ridgeland’s LEAD program gives police the opportunity to put someone into a diversion program instead of getting another ticket they can’t pay or going to jail, racking up court and attorney fees. Prior to this, sometimes the only option was arrest.
“The last thing these officers want to do is turn a simple traffic violation into a criminal, and that’s what we’ve been seeing in the past,” Neal said.
Three citations in a stop can cost more than $1500 in fines, plus then there are towing costs and bond and court fees. Some people just can’t pay it. Then they get into further trouble with the court. It starts a cycle.
But it’s not just about tickets. It’s that first time minor drug offense or the young single mother caught stealing baby food. Where there is a victim, they will be allowed in on the decision, but the point is to show some compassion and keep people from entering the system where they can be saved.
“This allows the officers to take a step back and say, ‘You know what? Go sit down with the team at Mississippi Harm Reduction,‘” said Mallette.
Through the LEAD program, MHR will help the offender get their driver’s license or renew a suspended one. They’ll point an uninsured driver toward affordable insurance, which helps insured drivers who might get hit by them too. They connect addicts to recovery programs and homeless to shelters and places that will help them get their life back.
But the offender has to put skin in the game, McDonald says. They have to be willing to accept help with the aim of getting back on their feet and back to being a contributing member of society.
“We’re empowering and enabling people if they want to take that responsibility to go get that license, and go do those things, because otherwise, we’re on a circle, man,” he said. “We just keep arresting them.”
McDonald and Neal say they know the program looks risky. There will be people who try to abuse it, they said. But nobody knows the offenders on the streets better than the police who will be making the decision to cite or arrest them, or cut them loose, and the prosecutor’s office can take it from there.
Mallette says she hopes to see something specific come from this.
“That this becomes our new normal for the law enforcement community in Mississippi,” she said.