A new approach to the status quo of policing drug crimes shows tremendous promise.
THE lock-’em-up approach to drug crime proved to be such a failure that it has become a prolific mother of invention. It has produced specialty drug courts, the marijuana legalization movement and, at last, bipartisan support for federal sentencing reform.
Seattle has now produced another innovation that should replace the status quo. An experimental program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), operating mostly in the Belltown neighborhood for four years, gives Seattle police an alternative to the business-as-usual trip to jail for people arrested for low-level drug and prostitution crimes.
Instead, would-be jail inmates are diverted to social services and case workers, so long as they meet a set of criteria. It is the first known pre-booking diversion program of its kind in the country.
This week, University of Washington researchers concluded that LEAD lowered the odds of arrest by 60 percent compared to the status quo approach. New felony charges for LEAD participants plunged.
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The research suggests that LEAD has tremendous promise to hit the sweet spot of smart public policy reform: a reduction in the public cost of crime, as well as a meaningful intervention in the lives of people struggling with addiction and mental illness.
Currently, LEAD is a pilot project, operating on a $1.5 million budget, with a goal of engaging 500 people in just one part of downtown. Referrals from police have fluctuated, with relatively few officers trained in its protocols.
Based on this research, Seattle and King County, which pays for felony prosecutions, should go big with LEAD.
It also has the potential to chip away at the corrosive street disorder in the downtown core. Police, city leaders and human-services advocates agree that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. That consensus, however, has been interpreted by police officers to not make arrests, which allows open-air drug markets to flourish.
Now, there’s a proven alternative.
Downtown Seattle is the nexus of the type of crimes that LEAD targets, but it is not alone. The King County sheriff is planning a LEAD project in White Center. Other regional cities grappling with the spin cycle of drug-related crimes are also giving LEAD a hard look.
Seattle and King County should set a goal for their 2016 budgets of at least doubling the LEAD budget and embedding the program in routine officer training.
Local leaders are smart enough on crime to know that LEAD is not some get-out-of-jail card. It is an acknowledgment that the status quo does not work.