LEAD has helped break the cycle of incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders by connecting them to services that help with problems such as homelessness and addiction. In late July, the program was extended to the East Precinct — its biggest single expansion yet.
An innovative program that has been credited with helping low-level drug offenders stay clean and out of jail has been expanded into Capitol Hill and the rest of the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct.
The recent expansion of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program is its largest in its five years, a move supporters say underscores its unexpected success in the city.
“LEAD is a national model that continues to attract a lot of attention from all over the world,” said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. “It’s put Seattle on the map in terms of a new approach to drugs.”
LEAD is designed for nonviolent drug offenders and offers them an option beyond jail. It assigns case managers to help connect them to treatment, housing and employment services. Since its start in Belltown, the program has accepted 450 referrals.
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Satterberg said the program has proved successful in removing participants from the “revolving door of the criminal-justice system.”
“A lot of people have such long-term addiction and other issues, that they’ll be clients for years to come,” Satterberg said. “It’s designed to pick the most difficult cases — people who won’t just get better in a couple weeks.”
Lisa Daugaard, director of the King County Public Defender Association and one of LEAD’s developers, said the issues in the East Precinct, including homelessness and addiction, aren’t uncommon in other areas of the city. But she said expanding to a new area can be difficult. She highlighted two challenges facing the program: the need for a streamlined system of information-sharing and for more housing options for those with criminal histories.
The program’s documents show that from January to July of this year, 48 people were admitted into LEAD. Over the same period, LEAD took 42 people off the streets and placed them in shelters, while eight people were moved into permanent housing and 17 to transitional housing.
Daugaard stressed that the project isn’t solely focused on drug abuse, but it is reserved for people who would otherwise be going to court or jail following an arrest.
“If this was just a route for people to get help (for drug addiction), it would be swamped overnight,” she said.
No criminal charges are filed against those who are accepted into LEAD. To qualify for the program, participants can’t possess more than 3 grams of drugs when arrested, can’t have felony convictions for serious violent crimes and other offenses, and can’t be suspected of promoting prostitution or exploiting minors in a drug-dealing enterprise.
During its pilot phase, police officers only referred people to LEAD on certain days due to financial constraints. Officers can now make LEAD referrals almost all the time, and Daugaard said the plan is to create 24-hour responsiveness for the program.
A report last year by the University of Washingtonshowed LEAD has a statistically significant impact in reducing the likelihood of new arrests of participants. The results showed the program had reduced criminal-recidivism rates by up to 60 percent for the chronically homeless, low-level drug dealers and users, and people in prostitution it was designed to help.
The results, Daugaard said at the time, “exceeded even our expectations.”
Since its launch, LEAD has made it easier for members of the community to make referrals, increased its street presence and created an outreach staff to assist case workers. Anyone can refer someone to LEAD, but the candidate has to be vetted and cleared by law enforcement, Daugaard said.
“If we wait for officers, we’re not going to touch most of the people who could benefit from this kind of approach,” she said.
The ideas behind LEAD are spreading beyond Washington. Daugaard said Albany, N.Y., Santa Fe, N.M., and other cities have launched LEAD projects; California and Maine have adopted legislation to allot funding for these programs.
She said a total of 40 jurisdictions are in some stage of planning for LEAD.
LEAD was privately funded until 2013, though additional grant funding continued until 2015. Seattle and King County now contribute $980,000 and $800,000, respectively, to the program.
Daugaard said she’s talking to other cities in King County about maintaining and expanding LEAD — a goal that depends on a $2 million proposal from the county’s Mental Illness and Drug Dependency fund.
“As much as LEAD does deliver better results than what it’s replacing, everyone who’s involved agrees that we could achieve a lot more,” Daugaard said. “We have not come close to scratching the ceiling of how successful this program could be.”