The plan’s architects hoped a new approach to dealing with low-level drug crimes would slow the number of people who repeatedly cycle through the criminal-justice system. They have new stats to back up their early suppositions.

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A real-world experiment that’s played out on the streets of Belltown over the past three years is producing significant results by interrupting thecycle of arrest, prosecution and incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders.

The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program is working even better than its creators had hoped, reducing criminal-recidivism rates by up to 60 percent for the poor, chronically homeless, low-level drug dealers, users and prostituted people it was designed to help.

When LEAD was launched as a four-year pilot project in October 2011, no one knew if it would work, said Lisa Daugaard, policy director for the King County Public Defender Association, who worked with police and prosecutors to develop the innovative program that was unlike anything ever tried in the country.

Based on a harm-reduction model that drew from decades of public-health research, LEAD’s architects were hopeful a new approach to dealing with low-level drug crimes would slow the number of frequent fliers who repeatedly cycle through the criminal-justice system.

Now having stats to back up their early suppositions isn’t a total surprise, “but I think the degree of difference in outcomes exceeded even our expectations,” Daugaard said.

The results of a non-random, statistically controlled evaluation by the University of Washington, released Wednesday, show that LEAD is having a statistically significant impact in reducing the likelihood of new arrests for program participants.

Granted, the sample size was small: 203 participants in the LEAD program were compared with a control group of 115 people, who met the same criteria but weren’t hand-selected by a group of Seattle police officers to receive social services instead of a ride to jail.

The evaluation’s findings were announced at a news conference at Belltown Community Center, where city and county officials, including Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and Sheriff John Urquhart, extolled the unique collaboration that created LEAD and has fostered a more-humane approach to combating chronic drug abuse and mental-health issues.

Two additional studies will be released later this year, the first comparing LEAD’s costs to costs associated with utilizing the traditional criminal-justice system. The other study will analyze the psychosocial, housing and quality-of-life outcomes for LEAD participants over time.

Voluntary participants

As a pilot, LEAD was funded with $4 million over four years from private foundations.

The way it worked: On random “green-light nights,” select squads of officers assigned to the Seattle Police Department’s West Precinct offered the program to people they arrested in Belltown.

Participants qualified for the program as long as they weren’t carrying more than 3 grams of drugs, had no felony convictions for serious violent crimes or certain other offenses, and weren’t suspected of promoting prostitution or exploiting minors in a drug-dealing enterprise.

While men are more likely to be arrested for using or selling drugs, women involved with drugs are most often arrested for prostitution, which made the misdemeanor offense also a qualifying crime for participation in LEAD.

The program cuts out the criminal-justice system and assigns voluntary participants to case workers, who can provide immediate help — a hot meal, a warm coat, a safe place to sleep — as well as longer-term services for drug treatment, stable housing and job training. Services are individually tailored and relapses are expected.

Those private funds will run out this year, said Daugaard, noting the city of Seattle committed money to LEAD in 2014 and 2015, with the King County government being asked to help fill the funding gap in 2016.

“It’s no longer considered a pilot. We’re now more in the standard implementation phase,” Daugaard said. The King County Sheriff’s Office has diverted four people in Skyway to LEAD and is expected to soon offer the program in White Center.

While a group of about 40 Seattle officers assigned to five West Precinct squads have been slowly offering the program to people in downtown neighborhoods outside of Belltown, it’s going to take time to expand LEAD to other neighborhoods and “bring it to scale,” she said.

Arrest numbers improve

Susan Collins, a clinical psychologist and UW associate professor, co-authored the LEAD evaluation with two colleagues, UW assistant professor Seema Clifasefi and research scientist Heather Lonczak. They work out of the university’s Harm Reduction and Research Treatment Lab at Harborview Medical Center.

The researchers compared LEAD participants to the control group, first looking at the short term — the likelihood someone was arrested in the six months before becoming a part of the study versus the likelihood of arrest six months after researchers started tracking them.

They found members of the LEAD group had a 60 percent lower likelihood of arrest compared to the control group in those subsequent six months.

Collins and her co-authors also took a longer view, comparing arrest data for the two groups between October 2009 — two years before LEAD started — and the end of the pilot project in late July.

LEAD participants had 58 percent lower odds of at least one subsequent arrest compared with the control group, a number that dropped to a 34 percent lower likelihood when warrant arrests, mostly related to older crimes,were removed from the analysis. LEAD participants were also 39 percent less likely to be charged with a felony compared with the control group.

“The analysis always showed that, compared to the control group, the LEAD program seemed to have a positive effect on arrests,” Collins said. “It’s a lot harder to do an evaluation like this under real-world conditions, so they’re pretty impressive findings, given the constraints.”

“Big wins” cited

The overall trends for the LEAD program “look very promising,” she said. “They’re very robust initial findings.”

King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Mary Barbosa, who is her office’s liaison to the LEAD program, said participants are among the hardest to serve and most vulnerable in the city. Eighty percent of LEAD participants were homeless when they entered the program, and many have addiction and mental-health issues that are too severe for the court system to adequately address.

If LEAD participants backslide or commit new felony drug crimes, they are held accountable. But because police and prosecutors are familiar with their life situations, they are able to use their discretion so as not to interrupt the progress being made.

For instance, Barbosa may not write an arrest warrant for someone if she knows that person has an upcoming appointment to get into stable housing.

The goal of LEAD is “to reduce the harm people are doing to themselves and the community,” she said. “Maybe they’re going to the ER (emergency room) once a month instead of four times a month — that’s still progress.”

Results vary but there are “big wins,” she said, citing the person who completed an apprenticeship program and is employable for the first time in years; the person living in an apartment after decades on the streets; and the addict who marked six months of sobriety, the longest period of time anyone can remember.

“The moments of celebration are big and more fulfilling than seeing someone go off to prison for five years,” Barbosa said.

How LEAD gets applied “doesn’t look the same for everybody” in the program, she said. “We’ll work with them if they’re interested in getting treatment — or just getting lunch. The relationship develops over time.”