The Chicago Police Department plans to roll out a pilot program to divert drug offenders away from local jails and into treatment, according to testimony during the first hearing of the Chicago-Cook County Joint Task Force on Heroin, chaired by Ald. Ed Burke(14) and Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin.

Police Chief Anthony Riccio, who worked under Interim Supt. John Escalante at the Bureau of Detectives, told task force members Escalante tasked him and the Commander of the Narcotics Unit to come up with ways to keep first-time offenders out of jail. Riccio said the Department plans to roll out an “innovative” pilot program for first-time arrestees stopped for possession or dealing to head to treatment instead of central booking to be charged with a crime. The goal is to “get more treatment rather than all this charging and this incarceration that’s costing the criminal justice system so much money to lock up kids for the first time… We’re hoping to get that rolled out in the next 30 days or so.”

The pilot, Riccio says, would take place in the 11th and 15th districts, along what Comm. Boykin described as “Heroin Highway” in his district.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Julie Morita said Chicago leads the nation in heroin overdoses, and described the problem as an “epidemic.” The Chicago Fire Department responded to roughly 3,000 overdoses in 2015.

CDPH already sent a letter to 11,000 physicians in Chicago urging caution when prescribing opioids. 80% of new heroin users started with prescription opioids. In 2014, the department sued five opioid manufacturers for misrepresenting benefits and downplaying risks, but those moves only “scratch the surface of what we really need to do,” Morita said. In 2016, CDPH plans to invest $1.75 million in drug programming, will hire a medical director to focus on substance abuse, and spend $250,000 on naxolone, which reverses overdoses, in key locations like emergency rooms and treatment centers.

“We need good data… We’re losing about a person a day in Cook County, and I think we’d all agree that that’s unacceptable,” Dr. Steve Aks of the Cook County Health and Hospitals System told task force members. The state’s Heroin Crisis Act, which overwhelmingly passed the state legislature this past September, mandates data gathering on overdoses, among other things, which Morita says will go a long way.

The task force includes Ald. Ed Burke, Pat Dowell (3), Leslie Hairston (5), George Cardenas (12), Willie B. Cochran (20), Ariel Reboyras (30), Emma Mitts (37) and other officials from Chicago and Cook County health and law enforcement. Matt Fischler, Director of Policy and Planning in the Mayor’s office, says the next meeting will be in mid-February, and will include national experts to discuss best practices. Policy recommendations are expected in the coming months.