According to a new, independent study by a University of Washington evaluation team, one of the nation's most innovative and promising approaches to ending the war on drugs and mass incarceration has been shown to produce a dramatic drop in recidivism.
In 2011, Seattle launched 'Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion' (LEAD), a bold new harm reduction-oriented approach to address low-level drug and prostitution crimes and break the cycle of addiction, joblessness and homelessness. Under LEAD, police officers exercise discretion to divert individuals for certain criminal offenses (including low-level drug sales) to a case manager and a comprehensive network of services, instead of booking them to jail and initiating the standard criminal justice process.
LEAD established a unique collaboration between multiple stakeholders who all work together to find new ways to solve old problems. Stakeholders include police, district attorneys, mental health and drug treatment providers, housing providers and other service agencies, the business community, public defenders, elected officials, and community leaders. LEAD emerged from a growing consensus that the war on drugs has failed, its associated racial disparities are unacceptable, and there is a need for innovative, effective approaches to reduce the number of people entering the criminal justice system.
The new evaluation by the University of Washington shows that LEAD reduces the number of people arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, and otherwise caught up in the criminal justice system, while also achieving significant reductions in recidivism. The evaluation team found that LEAD participants were up to 60% less likely to reoffend. This result is particularly encouraging in light of the high re-arrest rate for this population under the traditional criminal justice model.
A prior report, published last year, found that LEAD improves coordination among multiple stakeholders who too often have been working at cross purposes. It's perhaps not surprising, then, that LEAD data strongly suggest improvements in the health and well-being of participants struggling at the intersection of poverty, drug misuse, and mental health problems.
"The criminal justice system is designed for punishment and is a blunt and ineffective system when it comes to addressing public health issues," said Theshia Naidoo, Senior Staff Attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance. "LEAD demonstrates that transformative results are possible. A collaborative approach, which engages the community and treats all participants with respect, is not only more humane than the criminal justice model - it is more effective."
Anchored squarely in a harm reduction philosophy, LEAD is far less coercive than other diversion models - such as drug courts - that rely on sanctions and other punishments that can result in program participants spending more time entangled in the criminal justice system than if they were traditionally sentenced and incarcerated. Instead, LEAD demonstrates that by linking an individual to a highly coordinated, harm reduction-focused continuum of community-based care - including housing, counseling, job training, drug treatment, mental health services, and healthcare - it is possible to improve community safety and health, without jails, criminal prosecution, or courts.
In a statement released to the press, Seattle King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said, "We all knew intuitively that LEAD produces better outcomes than jail. It is good to have the first of many studies prove that to be so."
LEAD's successes at the local level have already had an impact on larger policy debates about criminal justice and drug policy. An increasing number of cities are considering adopting LEAD. In 2014, Santa Fe, New Mexico became the second jurisdiction to launch LEAD, and Albany, NY, is in the process of adopting LEAD. Numerous jurisdictions around the country, including Atlanta, Buffalo, Houston, Ithaca (NY), Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland (ME), Albany and San Francisco, have expressed interest in LEAD.
"After just one year, all of the early evidence in Santa Fe points to the fact that LEAD can work, and jail is not the answer for those in our community who struggle with addiction," said Emily Kaltenbach, New Mexico State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "LEAD is about individual and community wellness and is proving to be exactly the kind of collaborative, cross-sector solution we need to improve public health and safety. The LEAD program in Santa Fe has fostered creative thinking even from members of the system more accustomed to a rigid, punishment-based mentality. Everyone acknowledged that the current system wasn't working and it was time to invest in a better option. The LEAD program supports goals we all can agree on: treating addiction as a health issue, protecting public safety, and improving public health by addressing drug possession and addiction outside of the criminal justice system."
"New York City is ripe for an evidence-based approach to drugs policing modeled on LEAD," said Matt Curtis, policy director at VOCAL-NY. "We've already seen important commitments from the Mayor's office and City Council to end stop and frisk, greatly reduce low-level marijuana arrests, and limit criminal justice involvement for people with mental illness. We should extend that logic for all people who use drugs by replacing destructive arrests with supportive services that get at the roots of problems related to drug dependence."
"By establishing smart solutions for low-level criminal offenses that don't use jails or courts, Seattle's LEAD is the cutting edge of criminal justice reform in the nation," said gabriel sayegh, Managing Director of Policy and Campaigns for the Drug Policy Alliance. "LEAD is a way for local jurisdictions to unwind the failed war on drugs, address racial disparities, and improve practices without waiting for policy change to come from the state level or from Congress. It's a big step toward ending criminalization of drug possession and addiction."
The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is the nation's leading organization of people who believe the war on drugs is doing more harm than good. DPA fights for drug policies based on science, compassion, health and human rights.