The LEAD program saves money and changes lives



In February, my colleague Councilmember Nick Licata wrote an excellent blog post about an innovative program designed to divert low-level drug and prostitution offenders from arrest: LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion).

LEAD diverts low-level offenders from prison.

LEAD is a pre-booking program, which means that individuals enter the LEAD program rather than being processed through the criminal justice system.

Evidence has shown us for decades that processing low-level drug offenders through the criminal justice system – including arrest, booking, court hearings, and jail – does  not result in a positive behavior change. 

People who are addicted to and sell drugs live in a never-ending nightmare cycle. They use, they sell, are arrested, go to jail, do their time, get out, don’t find steady work, use, sell, get arrested, and on it goes.

If low-level drug dealers and users don’t get help with their addictions and other challenges, they can’t change their lives. Rarely do good things happen for the drug dealer, and taxpayers pay increasingly high costs to incarcerate the same people.

Here’s where LEAD comes in to break the cycle.  Rather than continuing to bang our collective heads against the same wall, the City, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the Public Defenders and more joined forces last year to try something different.  With help from private funders including the RiverStyx Foundation, the Massena Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, the Social Justice Fund Northwest, and others, the LEAD program started in 2011 in Belltown.

Treatment and other forms of support are provided.

Here’s how it works:  Under LEAD, police officers identify individuals on the street who are dealing or using illegal drugs.  Police in Belltown watch for users and dealers who might benefit from this pre-booking program:  supportive services that will stabilize a user’s life–before he or she is arrested again.   

Take Ralph for instance.  Ralph is a 50-year old with a troubled past.

Ralph has been in and out of state and county jails for over 30 years.  Between stints in the jail, he has been homeless.  Living on the streets.  Dealing drugs to make a few dollars.

Why does he keep bouncing between jail and the streets?  Ralph is illiterate, and he suffers from cognitive disorders.  He was raised in this country by drug-addicted parents.  He has not been able to apply for services because he doesn’t read, and his addictions complicate his abilities to cope.

A few months ago, Ralph – a frequent user of heroin and crack cocaine – was picked up in Belltown with a loaded syringe aimed at his arm. A West Precinct officer and Department of Corrections officer who recognized him thought Ralph could be a candidate for LEAD; so, rather than incarcerating Ralph, the officers called a trained outreach worker from our LEAD program. Ralph was taken to the night sobering center, where he met Tim, a case manager.

Tim explained to Ralph that he would be given a choice:  He could go to jail and expect another round of court appearances and likely jail time, or he could elect to participate in the LEAD program where he would be given inpatient and then extensive outpatient treatment for his drug addictions.  He would also be given a place to live and more.

Thanks to savvy police officers, experienced Department of Corrections outreach workers, and Tim – our very dedicated case manager – Ralph has been provided the treatment he needs.  He’s now steady on methadone, and for the first time has his own place and he is improving.

Tim told me that Ralph is learning to reading and write.  For one of his first writing projects, Ralph wanted to write a thank you note to the guy from Department of Corrections who led him to LEAD.  How’s that for progress?

So far, so good.  Ralph is making progress.  But how much does this cost?

Here’s the beauty. Tim tells me that so far this year Ralph has received services and housing valued at $9000—and that funding has come entirely from private philanthropy. Contrast that with jail time, which is estimated at a $30,000 cost to taxpayers per year when court costs and jail administrative costs are included.

So we have a double benefit.  One human being has been given a new chance, and the dollar cost is a third what it would be if Ralph were back in jail.  And there’s more.  To make this story even better, Ralph has reconnected with some of his family members, people he didn’t want to see while he was wrestling with shame and addiction.

What’s next?  We will collect more data, hear more stories, and learn more about the people involved in LEAD.  For my money, this pre-booking program is showing signs of success. And if programs like this succeed, we all succeed.

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