Watauga County Sheriff’s office considers new pre-arrest program

Anna Muckenfuss, Appalachian Weekly News Producer

In 2015, 32 percent of offenders who committed a crime in North Carolina became repeat offenders. The Watauga County Sheriff’s Office is considering a new program to reduce the county’s rate of recidivism, or repeat offenders.

Len Hagaman, Watauga County sheriff, said substance abuse in Boone has changed since he became sheriff in 2006.

“Earlier on in my career, things were less complicated. The narcotics of choice were mushrooms, marijuana and alcohol,” Hagaman said. “Watauga is still very high in use of meth. Those have had a serious impact on the families of folks that have substance abuse.”

Hagaman said the sheriff’s office is looking into a pre-arrest program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion to reduce the number of offenders in the detention center.

Robert Childs, former director of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, said LEAD’s goal is to give offenders options besides incarceration.

“We know we cannot arrest our way out of poverty, drug dependency or mental health,” Childs said. “The LEAD program is a pre-arrest initiative that works to connect our most at-risk people with support services.”

The NCHRC is an organization that encourages law enforcement to use pre-arrest programs like LEAD.

“We have helped start up multiple pre-arrest programs across the state. North Carolina has more LEAD programs more than any other state,” Childs said.

Childs said the LEAD program works to reduce racial inequalities in arrests and repeat offenders, and decrease drug overdoses by connecting offenders with social services and support systems.

“We know the underlying cause is often associated with trauma, poverty, mental illness,” Childs said.

Childs said criteria for the program varies based on jurisdiction.

“It’s basically people who are dependent on drugs and people who, at the time, have what equates to personal possession of drugs and paraphernalia, but you can also be referred into the program,” Childs said.

Participants in the LEAD program go through drug testing and are required to find employment.

“If they do what they’re told and they go to rehab, or work with social services, or work with the courts to be clean, then those charges don’t go through,” Hagaman said. “If they stumble they may get some time back in or they can get arrested.”

Fayetteville, Wilmington, Waynesville, Statesville and Mooresville police departments use the LEAD program, according to NCHRC.