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What is LEAD & Why is it Blowing Up?

What is LEAD & Why is it Blowing Up?

Until LEAD, most municipalities fought petty crime and addiction through arrest and confinement. That got them overcrowded jails and barely collectible fines, but little else. It sure didn’t lower the petty crime rate, let alone the rate of addiction. In fact, such policies often risked increasing the rate of more serious crimes. After all, there comes a time in almost every addict’s life, when petty crime is no longer enough to feed their addiction.

Then came LEAD. This new policy not only proved to be an effective weapon in the crime-fighting arsenal, but it also proved to effectively combat addiction. Even more surprising, LEAD was championed by folks on both the Left and the Right. A very welcome development in a country sorely lacking community consensus.

What is LEAD?

LEAD was developed and launched in Seattle back in 2011 after a healthy cross-section of local stakeholders decided a paradigm shift was needed. The War on Drugs had done more harm than good, they argued, and for far too long at that. The time had come for a serious change.

In other words, it was time to LEAD.

LEAD stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. The program was created by the Public Defender Association (PDA) with a little help from the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. And, like we said, it also involved a healthy cross-section of local stakeholders. Among those were the Defender Association’s Racial Disparity Project, the Seattle Police Department, the ACLU of Washington, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the Seattle City Attorney, the King County Sheriff’s Office, Evergreen Treatment Services, the King County Executive and the Washington State Department of Corrections.

Cross-sections don’t get much healthier than that.

Anyway, the day-to-day is actually run by an outfit called the LEAD National Support Bureau. It provides strategic guidance and technical support to program participants. Since the staff consists largely of public health and justice system veterans, it’s perfectly primed to help local jurisdictions get the proverbial ball rolling – and to keep it rolling.

The age-old practice of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration wasn’t the only thing on LEAD’s to-do list though. Stakeholders also wanted to address the criminal justice system’s racial and economic disparity. That meant more than simply reducing the incarceration rate among petty criminals; it meant addressing physical and mental health issues, homelessness and other co-occurring roadblocks. Mostly though, LEAD would need to treat alcoholism and addiction.

LEAD would get to those in need before they went to jail.

Why is LEAD?

By 2015 “the program is working even better than its creators had hoped, reducing criminal-recidivism rates by up to 60 percent for the poor, chronically homeless, low-level drug dealers, users and prostituted people it was designed to help.”

That’s what Seattle Times staff reporter Sarah Jean Green wrote, adding, that there’s also been “a statistically significant impact in reducing the likelihood of new arrests for program participants.”

No one knew if this kind of program would even work, said Lisa Daugaard, policy director for the King County Public Defender Association. Remember, this was unlike anything ever tried in the country.

That same year the White House hosted a National Convening on LEAD with interested delegations from nearly 30 jurisdictions including district attorneys, police chiefs, city council members, community police reform advocates, state legislators, and human service providers.​

By 2019 chronic low level offenders like Kevin Allen found they could actually turn to the Seattle Police for help – and they’d get it too. The 61-year-old went on to Bellevue College, studied to become a substance-use disorder counselor, and landed both a part-time job and a subsidized apartment. No, his journey wasn’t been altogether smooth. But, says Kevin, because of LEAD “everything has changed.”

These days the National Institute of Justice lists LEAD as a promising practice. The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) is making technical assistance grants to assist jurisdictions who are interested in replicating LEAD nationally. From the looks of things, they’ll be issuing a considerable number of grants.

Where is LEAD?

Indeed, a decade in, LEAD is in all but a handful of states. In fact, California and Colorado have recently included funding in their state budgets to support statewide implementation. LEAD

programs are also being explored and developed in dozens of other U.S. jurisdictions, as well as South Africa and the UK.

Is there a LEAD near you?

East L.A.
Los Angeles

Denver County
Pueblo County



Maui County


New Orleans

New Bedford



North Carolina
Burke County
Hickory/Catawba County

New Hampshire

New Mexico
Rio Arriba
Santa Fe

New York
Niagara County
Schoharie County

Hamilton County

Clackamas County
Marion County
Multnomah County

South Carolina

Houston (Youth)

King County
Kitsap County
Makah Tribe (Neah Bay)
Mason County
Puyallup Tribe
Snohomish County
Thurston County
Walla Walla
Whatcom County

West Virginia


Healing Properties

Healing Properties wholeheartedly applauds this unprecedented collaboration. And we salute everyone involved. That includes the police, prosecutors, civil rights advocates, public defenders and political leaders, as well as the mental health and drug treatment providers, housing providers and other service agencies. We also salute and applaud the local business and neighborhood leaders who stepped up to the plate. Yes, we realize everyone had a very vested interest in how the LEAD project panned out. Yet we also realize that it wouldn’t – no, couldn’t – succeed without everyone’s backing. Then again, when there’s so much at stake, who better to save the day than stakeholders?

How about you? Is there a LEAD program near you? Does your city or town have any other kind of diversion program? Could you use one? Well, give us a ring. We may not be able to provide an official LEAD, but we certainly can lead you in the right direction.

(Image courtesy LEAD National Support Bureau)

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