Seattle's New Drug Offender Program Has Been a Rousing Success

Belltown is the most densely populated neighborhood in Seattle, and it's also the site of much of the city's crime. For years, police officers in the area went the traditional route of finding and locking up criminals, but now they also have an alternative that's looking like a better option in some cases.

Seattle's Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD) has taken hold of the neighborhood in the past three years. Instead of sending a low-level offender to jail, the officer can offer the offender the option of taking them to the precinct, having them meet with a social worker, and becoming part of the LEAD program. From there, the offender's crime is taken off the record, and they can take advantage of existing low-income assistance programs. Case workers work closely with the person to help them find housing, help them get health care, and generally support them in making life changes.

“The case manager works with the client to figure out what they need,” Susan Collins, a clinical psychologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, told ATTN:. “They're typically caught up in the revolving door of street to jail to street cycle.

According to Collins, offenders in the LEAD program have used criminal activity as means to support themselves.

"These are usually folks who are low-level drug and prostitute offenders who are basically selling drugs and engaging in sex work to try and sustain their lives on the streets. Most of them are homeless and struggling to get by. These aren't big drug king pins,” she said.

Collins and her colleagues recently released a study that found the LEAD program is working. The study looked at 203 people who were part of LEAD and a control group of 115 who were not, but had similar criminal backgrounds. Comparing the likelihood of arrest six months before the study and six months into the study, they found that LEAD participants were 60 percent less likely to be arrested than the control group. Looking at two years prior to the program and comparing it to the period after, LEAD participants were 58 percent less likely to have one arrest than the other 115. They also found that LEAD participants were 39 percent less likely to be charged with a felony.

LEAD case workers tailor assistance to individual client needs, as opposed to prison programs that are typically the same for every participant. Collins said that another important factor helping the program is that case workers meet their clients in the community, get to know them, and establish a feeling of trust. “People are used to being burned by the system,” she said, but participants learn over time that their case worker will stick with them indefinitely, even if they keep using hard drugs or make other mistakes.

The program has received attention from officials in other states and even foreign countries. Santa Fe, N.M., has already started its own LEAD program, and Albany, N.Y., is preparing a similar program.

Lisa Daugaard, deputy director of Seattle's Public Defender Association and supervisor of the Racial Disparity Project, spearheaded the LEAD program. She said “both the city and the county have said they intend to engage in a planning process over the next several months to devise a way to take LEAD to scale across the city and/or the county.” She said that she believes the program will significantly save taxpayers' money when it's expanded to the county level, as the county “pays for all jail and justice system costs for people charged with felony drug crimes.”

The final verdict will be known once the upcoming studies are finished. Collins and her team plan to do further studies looking at whether LEAD reduces strain on the criminal justice system and cost to taxpayers.