Guest columnist: Health crisis exposes social service limits

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 2, 2020

By Cori Buck

Both COVID-19 and drug addiction have struck North Carolina.  

This dual threat has created a public health crisis that has inadvertently exposed some of the limitations in the social services provided by the state. 

With the recent push to “defund the police,” it may be a perfect time for cities across the state to invest in services that increase public safety by meeting the ignored needs of the community. To get a better idea of what this may look like, let’s examine a program that is already in place that could solve some of the problems.

Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, is a partnership between the justice system and social services that aim to provide alternatives to incarceration. The goal of the program focuses on individuals with issues that stem from unmet public health and human service needs. 

For example, crimes committed that are motivated by drug addiction or extreme poverty would be treated differently. Instead of putting these individuals through the typical system of criminal justice, which tends to be cyclical, prosecutors and police work closely with case managers to help people achieve behavioral change.

Cori Buck

This initiative seems to be what many are fighting for. Those who feel victimized by the current system desire a new form of public safety that focuses on the individual and invests in the community. Though the semantics of “defunding the police” can be unsettling to some, programs like LEAD are what could be effectively established if there was a reallocating of funds. It makes even more sense when you look at the cycle of crime and how we are investing the most money at the end of the cycle instead of attempting to prevent it.

The majority of crime is committed in an effort to solve a problem. These problems can come in many forms when looking at it through the scope of health and human services, whether someone is stealing to feed their family or to buy drugs. 

Many motivating factors for crime fall under the umbrella of health and human services. If more money was invested in social services aimed to help people, then the majority of specific criminal activity could be prevented because there would be no motive.

Currently, there are mixed reactions by cities across the state of North Carolina regarding budget changes. The city of Durham recently approved a controversial budget increase for police, leading to public disapproval towards the city management. Raleigh decided not to make any changes to their budget regarding police funding. 

And while Wilmington decreased their police budget by 1.9%, there is no plan of reinvesting this into other services and does not appear to be done on purpose. The only report of police defunding comes out of Winston-Salem, which is proposing a $1 million reallocation of funds that are to be invested into social services.

There doesn’t seem to be sweeping support for “defunding the police.”  Furthermore, minimal budget tweaking will not be enough to make a significant difference. This inability to create change will have future implications and will continue the status quo that many are fighting so hard to change.

The current state of public safety has created a hostile climate for individuals of color and perpetuates systemic racism. Unmet health and human service needs lead to crime and create criminals. By not investing in social services that will ultimately change the community for the better, individuals are being left to fend for themselves. 

There is ample funding available to arrest people and vilify them. But unfortunately, the necessary support to empower them is absent.  Programs like LEAD can be useful, but we will never know how successful it can be if it is not adequately funded in every aspect. The police have enough resources to fill programs like LEAD up, but it is pointless if proper funding isn’t made available for the other elements of the program.

It’s time our system of public safety started leading by example. Making positive changes on how they behave can empower their communities to do the same.


Cori Buck is a healthcare professional and an expert in substance abuse and addiction recovery.  She uses her years of experience to provide insight into our nation’s drug epidemic and other issues surrounding medical care in our society.  She is a regular contributor to the health website