A few months ago, Marc Levin was gushing about Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, better known as LEAD, an innovative program that provides low-level criminal offenders with intensive social services rather than giving them jail time. Levin had been part of a sizable Houston delegation that came to Seattle to see the program the preceding June. “It was really impressive,” Levin, policy director of the conservative Texas group Right on Crime, recalled. He depicted LEAD as a “bold” strategy to counter excessively high and expensive incarceration rates, which afflict his state as much as anywhere else.
LEAD has its roots in classic Seattle liberalism, so praise from a conservative like Levin is a little surprising—but only a little. Since it began in the fall of 2011, LEAD has attracted international attention and roughly 150 out-of-town visitors, according to Lisa Daugaard, a prominent public defender largely responsible for conceiving the program. Two cities, Albany, N.Y., and Santa Fe, N.M., returned home to start their own LEAD programs.
What Levin’s delegation undoubtedly didn’t know is that in Seattle—a city increasingly proclaimed by its officials as a progressive model for the rest of the country—LEAD was twisting in the wind. Beginning last spring, the Seattle Police Department had slowed referrals into the program to a trickle, and Daugaard says program leaders felt they were at a crossroads. If officers didn’t send more clients their way, the program would cease to operate.
“At no time did we say we should back away,” says Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole. She concedes that certain distractions took SPD’s energy away from LEAD, however—foremost among them “a change of leadership.” O’Toole arrived on the scene in June after a rocky period for the police department, which encompassed a discipline scandal and a changing cast of police commanders under new Mayor Ed Murray. The turmoil cast out LEAD’s biggest champion within SPD, onetime interim chief Jim Pugel. Facing a demotion, he left the department in March 2014.
Now chief deputy of the King County’s Sheriff’s office, Pugel was in attendance at a press conference last Wednesday that revealed a remarkable change of fortune for LEAD. Not only is the program carrying on, it is being embraced as never before.
A who’s-who of local public officials gathered at the Belltown Community Center to announce a “renewed commitment” to the program, as articulated by a press release from the mayor.
“I’ve spent my entire professional life in pursuit of justice,” said Mark Larson, chief criminal deputy for the King County Prosecutor’s Office, one of the many who waxed eloquent at the press conference. Yet, LEAD, he said, was “offering more than justice.” It was offering “redemption.”
“It is now time to take the program to the next level,” declared the mayor. He said he was taking a number of steps to grow the program “to scale.” Currently, LEAD’s strongest base of operations is Belltown, although it officially operates throughout downtown. The mayor’s steps include engaging a nonprofit think tank to come up with expansion strategies and having SPD dedicate a lieutenant full-time to coordinating with the program.
Murray declined to identify new neighborhoods that the program might venture into, and conceded “funding is going to be an interesting issue.” At the moment, half of LEAD’s $1.5 million annual budget comes from private foundations—money which will dry up by the end of this year.
The city is pursuing other crime-busting strategies as well. O’Toole, in an interview before the press conference, said that she’s concerned about “getting gun-carrying drug dealers off the street” and that “we’re definitely doing some enforcement . . . More on that in the next couple of weeks.”
Still, the turnaround on LEAD was striking, and can be traced, in large part, to a University of Washington evaluation with startling results that began circulating a couple of months ago. The evaluation compared the recidivism rate of approximately 200 people who participated in LEAD to that of 115 people who went through the criminal-justice system as usual. Those in LEAD were roughly 60 percent less likely to be arrested again within a period of two and a half years after the program began.
As officials cast about for ways of responding to widespread complaints about downtown crime, whatever doubts some harbored about LEAD largely dissipated. “As soon as the evaluation results became known, that was pretty much the end of the debate,” Daugaard says.
“What’s really amazing is that [LEAD] actually works,” said county Sheriff John Urquhart at last week’s press conference, echoing an oft-heard refrain. “And now we have the proof.”
Yet LEAD’s success does not lend itself to simple before-and-after stories. While the UW study showed dramatically less recidivism for LEAD participants, it also revealed that the re-arrest rate was still high, 58 percent.
“We’re dealing with individuals who have engaged with addiction, the criminal-justice system, and homelessness for a long time,” says LEAD program manager Cathy Speelmon. “Change doesn’t happen overnight.” Indeed, what may be most remarkable about LEAD is its willingness to stick with people others have written off, even when it might seem as if all the help the program has offered has come to naught.
“My past hunts me,”says Gerald Brooks, sipping a caramel frappuccino at a Belltown Starbucks. Three years ago, he had the same drink in the same place as we met for the first time. Then 41, he had spent most of his adult life homeless, addicted to crack and heroin, and intermittently incarcerated on a variety of charges including drug dealing, shoplifting, and robbery.
As he remembered it then, he had volunteered for LEAD several months prior, becoming one of the program’s first participants. “Fuck, I’m tired,” he recalled saying to himself.
When we first met, he was just about to start methadone treatment to wean himself off heroin. Yet his ability to change was anything but clear. He arrived at our meeting high on heroin and pulled out two phones—”one for drug money, one for ho money.” Both were for selling drugs, but he said he had a separate line just for selling to prostitutes.
“I have one phone now,” he tells me when we meet one day last week. It has a new number, one he says he gives to family, his LEAD caseworker, and hardly anyone else.
And another change in him is more readily apparent. A scrawny 130 pounds when we met in 2012, the 6´2˝ Brooks now weighs 280. “I got off drugs,” he explains simply and in a voice considerably less hyper than in his addict days. He tells me that he went on methadone and participated in an addiction-treatment program LEAD enrolled him in. Then he weaned himself off that substitute drug.
Meanwhile, with LEAD’s help, he moved into the first apartment of his adult life. “I opened up my refrigerator every 15 minutes. When I was cold, I turned the heat on. When I was hot, I opened the window.”
And then, he says, “I got bored.” He started to mind that his phone barely rang and he had little to do but go to addiction and other support classes arranged by LEAD. “I wasn’t using, but I still had the sensation of being in the game.” In fact, the game was all around him. The part of Auburn he moved into, it turned out, was beset by drug dealing. He jumped in again. He says he thought he could sell drugs without starting to use. He says he also thought he could stop taking the classes arranged by LEAD.
That’s the place he was in when one day early this year an Auburn police officer stopped him for jaywalking and discovered two old warrants. It’s a common misperception that being in LEAD exempts participants from all prosecution. In actuality, only an initial charge is automatically deferred, although LEAD case workers will frequently come to court to speak on behalf of their clients. Brooks didn’t call LEAD, though. He wasn’t much in touch anyway then. “I rode it out,” he says.
He was ordered to 75 days in jail, but says it felt like years. “I hadn’t had handcuffs around my arms in a long time.” When he got out, he went back to LEAD.
At this point, Brooks could be considered a LEAD failure. But the program doesn’t look at it like that. The program follows a “harm reduction” model, which accepts people where they are and encourages them, without coercion or judgment, toward a safer, healthier path. If they fall back into old ways, they aren’t kicked out—ever. “We can always start over,” Brooks’ longtime case worker Tina Walker used to tell him.
Walker was retired by the time Brooks returned to the Belltown LEAD office in February. His new case worker, Brian Pope, says he didn’t ask Brooks many questions about where he’d been. But Pope says he gathered the experience had been a turning point. Brooks appeared clean, sober, and “100 percent engaged,” Pope recalls.
Case workers make a distinction between the “contemplative phase,” when their clients mull a different life path, and the “changing phase,” when they fully commit to it. Brooks, it seems to Pope, is now in the changing phase.
Together, Brooks and Pope are working at clearing the next big hurdle: finding a permanent place to live. When Brooks went back to jail, he gave up his Auburn apartment. Pope got him a room in a Kent group house for recovering addicts, but Brooks says it’s not the same as having his own place. They’re working on an application for a Section 8 housing voucher. A bigger challenge is finding a landlord who will rent to someone with criminal convictions. Pope, in the hands-on approach of LEAD case workers, has been calling and visiting landlords alongside Brooks.
At Starbucks last week, Brooks, who stopped by the LEAD office on the way, says that Pope has finally found a couple of possibilities in Burien. Brooks is cautiously hopeful. He’s also busy, having re-immersed himself in classes, counseling appointments, and support groups. A typical day, he says, starts at 5 a.m. and involves traveling from Kent to Renton to Auburn to Burien and then back to Auburn, all by bus.
It’s hard to know whether Brooks will stumble again. And yet his progress, uneven as it is, seems undeniable. His past may hunt him, but it also reminds him of what he’s fleeing. Through a Starbucks window, he spies an old cohort from the streets, clad in a hoodie and sagging jeans, striding away from us. “I don’t want to be like that,” he declares. His plan, he says, is “to keep doing what I’m doing.”