The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program began in Belltown in 2011 and has since expanded to other parts of Seattle. Burien is now set to become the second city in King County to offer community care to some addicts arrested for low-level drug possession.

Share story

Seven years after Seattle introduced the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program to divert low-level drug users out of the criminal-justice system and into community-based care, King County officials announced Tuesday the program will be expanded to South King County communities, starting with Burien.

Meantime, King County prosecutors announced they will stop filing criminal charges against most individuals caught with less than a gram of any drug, including heroin.

LEAD was first introduced in 2011 on the streets of Belltown, where Seattle police officers were given the discretion to connect certain people busted for drug and prostitution crimes with case workers instead of carting them off to jail.

The program has since been replicated in 20 cities across the country.

In 2015, an evaluation by the University of Washington showed LEAD reduced recidivism rates by nearly 60 percent.

The program is aimed at meeting a client’s immediate needs, like food and housing, then work with participants over months or even years to remake their lives through opportunities like job training, education and treatment.

Seattle’s original LEAD program “developed proof of concept,” said Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association, who partnered with Seattle police and King County prosecutors to create the program.

“It’s a whole new ballgame, taking it to scale,” she said, noting the political will shown by police and elected officials has allowed King County to lead the nation “in showing we’re serious” about shifting away from punishing people to helping them work through behavioral health issues.

King County Executive Dow Constantine announced Tuesday that his proposed 2019-2020 budget, which will be submitted to the county council in two weeks, will include $3.1 million from the county’s Mental Illness and Drug Dependency (MIDD) fund to expand LEAD to other cities.

Burien, where city officials have expressed interest the program, will be first, followed by a second as-yet unidentified South King County city in 2019, and a third city the next year.

“It’s the first time a city outside Seattle will be able to refer people to the program … We go into this with our eyes wide open,” said Constantine, who committed to continuing to track the program’s effectiveness.

The LEAD budget for 2019-2020 also includes $4 million to continue the program in Seattle. Since its inception, LEAD has spread beyond Belltown to include Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square and the Aurora corridor in the north precinct. The City of Seattle also provided $1.75 million to fund the program this year. It now has 525 participants.

At a Tuesday news conference outside the Burien Police Department, Burien Mayor Jimmy Matta said he’s grateful for the opportunity to bring LEAD to his city — a decision that will be discussed in community meetings this fall and will require city council approval before it can be implemented.

It’s expected 100 people in Burien will be diverted away from the court system through LEAD, which will be tailored to the community and employ case managers working in the city.

Standing before a row of TV cameras, Matta revealed something he’d never said publicly before:

“My father died of a drug overdose in Burien. It’s tough to say my father was a drug addict and I love him. I am the man I am today because of him,” Matta said.

Plenty of kids in the suburban city are living with drug-addicted parents, and Burien has seen a rise in homelessness and property crimes associated with addicts seeking their next fix, the mayor and others said.

Like Matta, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg has lost a loved one to drugs: In May, he wrote a personal essay about his younger sister, Shelley, who died in March from health problems related to her years’ long addiction.

In tandem with the LEAD announcement, Satterberg said Tuesday his office will no longer file criminal cases against most people arrested in possession of one gram or less of drugs, believing that sending those addicts into the criminal-justice system does more harm than good.

Though possession of even a tiny amount of drugs is a felony crime, Satterberg decided a decade ago to charge cases involving possession of three grams or less as gross misdemeanors in King County’s district courts.

In 2016, 1,000 people were charged in district court for possessing one gram or less of drugs, representing 83 percent of the county’s gross-misdemeanor drug caseload. On average, each of those people were subject to 1.4 warrants and 2.2 court hearings and each ended up spending roughly 15 days in jail, Satterberg said.

It took about a year for someone to be convicted, and in the end, no help was offered, he said.

The change in the prosecutor’s filing standard for possession of one gram or less won’t just save money, Satterberg said.

“The overall philosophy of this is that we know substance-use disorder is a disease. That’s what the medical science tells us, and it’s time we started acting like it and creating a response that’s more about help and less about handcuffs,” he said.