When Kevin Allen realized he was sliding back into a familiar pattern of theft and drug use, he sought help somewhere unusual: the Seattle Police Department’s West Precinct.

It was 2013 and Allen had been out of prison for about a year and a half, where he’d served two years after getting caught selling crack cocaine to an undercover officer. He was homeless, again struggling with bipolar disorder and addiction. Having previously been arrested about 70 times for theft and drug offenses, he didn’t want to end up back in handcuffs.

Today, the 61-year-old is a Bellevue College student. He’s studying to become a substance-use disorder counselor, works part-time and has a subsidized apartment. Though his journey hasn’t been altogether smooth, in the past year, Allen says, “everything has changed.”

He credits the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which allows police to connect people like him with case managers and services, rather than leaving them on the streets or cycling through jail.

Birthed here, LEAD has won widespread acclaim and spread rapidly across the country, drawing attention from leaders such as Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. Seattle “has figured out how to end the War on Drugs,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof declared recently.

And now, the Seattle City Council is poised to boost LEAD even more, energizing reformers despite some tension at City Hall over disagreement about how rapidly the program should grow.

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Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2020 budget includes only a modest increase, but the City Council intends to double LEAD’s budget next year, while restricting other repeat-offender strategies pitched by Durkan.

The mayor says she hasn’t been wholly convinced by studies from 2015 that indicated LEAD was reducing arrests and saving taxpayer money, nor by metrics that show the program is serving hundreds of people. Her representatives say Seattle should proceed cautiously because LEAD lacks updated data on subsequent arrests and clarity about case loads.

“We absolutely need diversion programs,” Durkan said in an interview. “We just want to make sure that as we invest in things, they’re having the outcomes we all expect.”

But council members have ranked LEAD among their most urgent priorities, based on evidence like the peer-reviewed studies and enthusiasm for the program among respected criminal-justice reformers. They say bold action is needed to improve safety on the streets, and they’re unanimous in that view, so they’ll call the shots on the budget.

“We need to continue to support evidence-based tools that are helping the city meet the needs of low-level drug users, sex workers and people who have behavioral-health issues,” Councilmember M. Lorena González said, pointing to backing from cops, prosecutors, public defenders and business owners alike.

The data on arrests and charges that Durkan seeks is actually held by the city, not LEAD, LEAD creator Lisa Daugaard noted, saying the program has been through more rigorous testing and collects better metrics than other approaches. Furthermore, LEAD boosters say some aspects of the program aren’t easy to quantify. Under its “harm-reduction” model, participants aren’t automatically kicked out of the program if they’re arrested again. And case managers aim to get their clients sober and housed, but they also care about helping their clients reach small successes, like obtaining identification.

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Allen’s life didn’t change overnight. Though LEAD helped him buy food and clothes and get into treatment, he was in and out of sober houses and was arrested twice on warrants with drugs in his possession, plus half a dozen times for retail theft. He was also arrested in early 2018 for selling a small amount of crack in Belltown and was sentenced to six months in jail.

But as a LEAD participant, Allen received some latitude from prosecutors, and his case manager stood by him. Following his release from jail last year, the program supported Allen as he enrolled in school, helped him secure housing and assisted with medical bills related to a recent heart attack.

“They just didn’t give up,” Allen said.

Growing program

Launched in 2011 as a pilot program in Belltown and initially bankrolled by private donors, LEAD is a partnership with the nonprofit Public Defender Association (PDA) that allows police officers to link people involved with low-level drug and property crimes and prostitution to social services. The program has since spread across Seattle to Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square and Aurora, been added in Burien and been replicated in more than 30 other jurisdictions, including Portland and San Francisco.

In Seattle alone, the number of people enrolled in LEAD, which also uses King County and private-sector dollars, has soared from about 400 at the end of 2017 to more than 750 today. PDA executive director and LEAD creator Daugaard recently received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”

The city has helped make LEAD’s growth possible, budgeting $2.3 million this year, and the program has been bolstered by cash from a state legal settlement related to people with mental illnesses languishing in jail. LEAD became eligible by serving people with severe and persistent mental health conditions.

Even so, demand is outstripping LEAD’s resources, bringing Seattle to a crossroads. The council could dramatically increase spending to serve as many as 1,400 people by the end of 2020, or could take Durkan’s tack.

In a letter last month to Sally Bagshaw, the council’s budget chair, Deputy Mayor Mike Fong acknowledged LEAD’s popularity. But he said the Durkan administration wants to see even more validation of curbed crime.

“We must be able to evaluate the degree to which LEAD is meeting its prime objective of reducing criminal recidivism,” Fong wrote. “We must have a range of programs.”

The mayor in September announced her own $3 million set of strategies to break the streets-jail cycle, including a new homeless shelter and a probation program aimed at moving repeat offenders into treatment, with an assistant city attorney to oversee such initiatives.

Daugaard says LEAD’s model is proven and warns the program could break down without an adequate budget.

“LEAD is not a single tool but rather a … framework for coordinating all the available tools to the best effect,” Daugaard wrote in a reply to Fong, arguing outcomes depend greatly on whether treatment, services and apartments are available.

There are 300 people who have been referred but can’t be assigned case managers because LEAD is over-subscribed, Daugaard said. Business associations in Ballard, Chinatown-International District, downtown, Pioneer Square and Sodo recently urged the council to expand the program, which maintains neighborhood offices.

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LEAD case manager Steve Curry’s 35 clients need varying support, ranging from periodic check-ins to intense assistance, he said. In a single day this month, he helped two clients with medical issues and juggled appointments with others in between.

“It was overwhelming,” Curry said.

Budget plans

Tweaks to Durkan’s budget that cleared the council’s budget committee in a unanimous vote Tuesday include an additional $3.5 million for LEAD next year, on top of the $2.5 million proposed by the mayor. Seattle’s spending on the program would surpass $6 million.

The council is scheduled to pass the 2020 budget Monday, and its increase for LEAD would rank among its most substantive moves in what’s been a relatively quiet budget season, politically.

While making the LEAD bump and other additions, the council would redirect millions of dollars from a South Lake Union property sale and trim funding to various Durkan priorities, including her probation proposal, which harm-reduction advocates have criticized as coercive.

The program was also able to secure a $1.5 million grant from the Ballmer Group, which includes a condition that the city commit to funding LEAD to scale by 2023, allowing the program to accept all eligible referrals deemed a “priority” by Seattle police. The council plans to direct the mayor’s office to lead a study to determine that funding level.

Overall, the increase in funding would allow LEAD to hire 54 more case managers, whereas the program employs only 19 today, and work with 1,400 clients. Case managers would be capped at 25 clients each, down from 44. LEAD also would increase employee salaries to improve retention and the Seattle City Attorney’s Office could assign a second prosecutor to the program, according to the council.

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Fong said LEAD already has benefited from an unusually rapid ramp-up.  Even without the council’s add, Seattle is set to spend about three times more money on LEAD than in 2015.

Bagshaw believes now is “the right time” to bring the program to scale, however, because political resistance to the innovative idea has mostly receded. “We know what works, we can invest in it and I’ve got the [council] majority to do it,” she said.

What’s known

Behind the scenes, LEAD and Durkan representatives have been debating whether evidence shows a substantial increase in spending is justified.

A series of studies conducted by University of Washington researchers in 2015 and peer-reviewed more recently found reductions in jail bookings, prison and felony charges for LEAD participants, compared with a control group, leading to cost savings. They didn’t show significant reductions in misdemeanor charges, though Seattle hadn’t yet assigned a misdemeanor prosecutor to the program. The researchers found LEAD reduced subsequent arrests by nearly 60%.

The Durkan administration wants to see more recent metrics. Determining appropriate caseloads is complicated because some clients require more time than others, Fong added.

Ultimately, LEAD partners agree additional metrics would be useful and evaluation projects are underway, including a database bankrolled by Microsoft.

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However, the program’s boosters argue that the costly, scientific 2015 studies remain relevant because LEAD’s methodology hasn’t changed. They also say the ability to produce updated criminal-justice data for Seattle clients lies with the Durkan administration. Results tracked by the county suggest continued success, with most clients enrolled between 2014 and 2017 spending less or no time in jail through 2018.

LEAD cites other data showing the breadth of the program’s services: About 560 participants are now considered active, having met with case managers in the past three months, according to LEAD. Case managers have logged 20,000 meetings this year.

LEAD participants — about 70% of whom are homeless —  receive no special access to subsidized apartments. Notwithstanding, 89 obtained permanent housing last year.

In Seattle Municipal Court, 114 clients had their misdemeanor cases coordinated last year by LEAD’s assistant city attorney, who attended 1,064 hearings.

“I believe I’m more effective using LEAD,” said Heather Aman, the assistant city attorney. “I can individualize what I’m asking the judge for.”

Even more telling is how much officers like LEAD, González said. The program was supposed to launch in Sodo this year, but cops elsewhere are keeping its case managers too busy for a full roll-out.

Reporter Sara Jean Green contributed to this story.