For the past five weeks, individuals arrested in Santa Monica on nonviolent drug charges have had the option to enter substance abuse treatment before facing a judge.

The Joint Outreach and Linkage to Treatment, or JOLT program, allows individuals in Santa Monica Police Department custody to immediately start a month-long course of treatment at a local addiction center before appearing in court. The city of Santa Monica is funding the program in the hopes that meaningful treatment will divert low-level drug offenders away from the criminal justice system.

“Locking people in jail and throwing away the key is neither just nor cost-effective, but letting them out isn’t either,” said City Manager Rick Cole. “We have to do a better job of helping these folks return to self-respect and self-sufficiency, and with the JOLT program, we can help them unlock the potential that every single one of them has.”

The program is completely voluntary, but all 18 people who have been offered treatment accepted, said Brian Hardgrave, who oversees many of the city’s homeless programs. In the future, he said, the city and police department will evaluate the proportion of participants that complete the program and whether they return to jail.

To be considered eligible for the program, individuals must be in custody for drug possession, possession of drug paraphernalia or being under the influence of a controlled substance, said SMPD Sergeant. Erika Aklufi said. They may also have another type of nonviolent misdemeanor on their record, but cannot participate in the program if they have been charged with the sale or distribution of narcotics, a violent or sexual offense, or a probation or parole violation.

Each week, police offer eligible individuals the opportunity to speak with a counselor at Clare | Matrix, a local addiction treatment center. If they decline, they proceed through the court system or are released from jail with a citation. Individuals who accept are taken directly from jail to Clare | Matrix to be evaluated and signed up for two outpatient group sessions and two Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Hardgrave said.

“That window of motivation can be really tight, so you sometimes lose folks if you ask them to wait a few days,” he said.

Participants make their first appearance in court 45 days after their arrest. The judge considers their treatment progress when deciding their punishment, Aklufi said.

Malik Owens, a Clare | Matrix outreach and retention specialist who coordinates the JOLT program, said many participants have been unhoused in Santa Monica for several years and have been arrested a few times each month. A large proportion are dealing with unresolved sexual trauma and mental illness, he said.

“What I’ve seen is a lot of sexual trauma among males,” Owens said. “People don’t realize how common that is and how much it has to do with substance abuse.”

Owens said the counseling helps participants understand what made them dependent on drugs or alcohol, how addiction changes the brain and behavior, and the first steps toward recovery.

“They start talking about the trauma that caused their homelessness and substance abuse, which they may never have done before,” he said. “Understanding the neurological aspect is also really important — when participants grasp the idea of substance abuse being a disease, they approach it in a different way.”

Alongside outpatient counseling, Clare | Matrix provides access to a psychiatrist, therapist and case management services that help homeless participants find temporary and permanent housing, health care and employment. Participants have the option to enter residential treatment, but Owens said most opt to stay in local shelters or remain on the streets.

Owens said the program serves as a fork in the road for individuals who have been on a consistently self-destructive path. As participants start to understand the dynamics of substance abuse, they become more willing to seek outside support and plan for the future, he said.

“When someone is facing multiple charges, you actually have more success in bringing this opportunity to them because there’s an ultimatum of a kind,” Owens said. “As far as getting people off the streets and opening their eyes to a better future, this is probably one of the most influential programs out there.”

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