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In 2011, in an attempt to move away from the War on Drugs paradigm and to reduce racial disparity in drug enforcement, a new harm-reduction oriented process for responding to drug activity and street-based sex work was pioneered and launched in Seattle-King County called “Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion” (LEAD®). This program was the result of a unique collaboration between police, district attorneys, civil rights advocates and public defenders, political leaders, mental health and drug treatment providers, housing providers and other service agencies, and business and neighborhood leaders – all working together to find new ways to solve real problems for individuals who did not respond well to a criminal justice system driven approach that relies on arrest, prosecution, and punishment. Under LEAD, police officers exercise discretionary authority at the point of contact to divert individuals to a community-based intervention program for low-level criminal offenses (such as drug possession, sales, and prostitution offenses).</

What is LEAD®?

LEAD was originally designed as a post-arrest/pre-booking diversion program that allowed officers to redirect low-level offenders engaged in street-level drug possession or sales or sex work to community-based services instead of jail and prosecution. At the suggestion of police officers tasked with implementing LEAD, entry to LEAD was expanded to include social-contact referrals; this allows officers to refer appropriate individuals to LEAD who they meet in the course of their routine police work. Individuals referred to LEAD receive immediate access to harm reduction based intensive case-management. Working with their case managers, individuals develop an individualized plan identifying the types of services most relevant for them. These services include – but, are not limited to – chemical dependency treatment, mental health care, housing, and job training and placement. Unlike drug courts and other sanctions based approaches, abstinence from drug use is not a precondition of receiving services. Rather, case managers work intensively with individuals to reduce the harm that substance use may cause them and the community. Prosecutors and police officers work closely with case managers to ensure that all contacts with LEAD participants going forward, including new criminal prosecutions for other offenses, are coordinated with the service plan for the participant to maximize the opportunity to achieve behavioral change.

Why do LEAD®?

LEAD’s goals are to reduce the harm a drug offender causes him or herself as well as, the harm that the individual is causing the surrounding community. This public safety program has the potential to reduce recidivism rates for low-level offenders and preserve expensive criminal justice system resources for more serious or violent offenders. An unplanned but welcome effect of LEAD has been the reconciliation and healing it has brought to police-community relations. While tensions rise in many communities between law enforcement and civil rights advocates, LEAD has led to strong alliances among traditional opponents in policy debates surrounding policing, and built a strong positive relationship between police officers and people on the street who are often a focus of police attention. Community public safety leaders rallied early and have remained staunch in their support for this less punitive, more effective, public-health-based approach to public order issues. LEAD begins to answer the pressing question of what the community wants from the police with regard to public order problems, if the War on Drugs is over and increased incarceration and punishment is not a desired option.

What have we learned from LEAD®?

After three years of operation, an independent, non-randomized controlled outcome evaluation showed that LEAD participants are 58% less likely to be arrested after enrollment in the program, compared to a control group that went through "system as usual" criminal justice processing. With significant reductions in recidivism, LEAD has the potential to decrease the number of those arrested, incarcerated, and otherwise caught up in the criminal justice system. Additionally, preliminary program data collected by case managers also indicate that LEAD improves the health and well-being of people struggling at the intersection of poverty and drug and mental health problems. And the multi-sector collaboration between stakeholders who are often otherwise at odds with one another demonstrates an invaluable process-oriented outcome that is increasingly an objective of broader criminal justice and drug policy reform efforts. 

Sharing the Model: Replicating LEAD®

An increasing number of jurisdictions are interested in adopting LEAD. In 2014, Santa Fe became the second jurisdiction to launch LEAD. Albany, NY, is planning to launch LEAD in 2016. Numerous jurisdictions around the country have sent delegations to Seattle to learn about the process, invited the Seattle LEAD team to their local jurisdiction, or have attended an invite-only presentation by Seattle LEAD team members. These jurisdictions include Atlanta, Buffalo, Houston, Ithaca, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland (ME) and San Francisco. In July 2015 a national convening for interested jurisdictions was held at the White House in Washington, DC. Representatives from over 25 US jurisdictions and Tijuana Mexico attended and began the process of planning for LEAD in their areas. In response to this increasing interest, in 2016 PDA launched the LEAD National Support Bureau which will provide technical assistance to areas seeking to implement their own LEAD programs.

What is PDA’s role in LEAD®?

PDA staff were intimately involved in the design and implementation of LEAD in Seattle-King County. PDA staff worked closely with representatives from the Seattle Police Department, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, and the Seattle City Attorney’s Office to develop the eligibility criteria for LEAD and the diversion protocols. We also secured the private foundation funding that enabled the LEAD® pilot project to begin in October 2011.

PDA staff serve as the project managers for LEAD in Seattle-King County. We organize and facilitate meetings of the LEAD Policy Coordinating Group, the meetings of the operational workgroup, and the LEAD evaluation advisory committee.

As other jurisdictions, both nationally and internationally, seek to find out more about LEAD or to implement LEAD programs in their areas, PDA staff provide technical assistance through our National Support Bureau

More on LEAD®

Please visit:
LEAD King County website
LEAD Facebook page