Jimmy Matta became mayor of a changing Burien. The bedroom community in which he took up domicile was largely untouched by the explosive growth that struck Seattle in recent years, bringing with it intense wealth as well as increasing inequality and gentrification.
The city no longer enjoys the relative quiet of obscurity.
“We’re turning from a small, bedroom community to an urban city,” Matta said.
The designation comes with a new set of challenges, among them more visible street poverty, drug issues and property destruction.
City leaders hope that they have found a program that will help.
As the new year kicks off, so does the design for Burien’s version of Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), a program that brings police, prosecutors and case managers together to move nonviolent, low-level offenders away from the criminal justice system and toward stability.
LEAD tailors itself to individual communities, taking into account their needs and individual cultures, said Tim Candela, LEAD project manager in the Seattle Police Department’s West Precinct.
Candela, one of the original case managers when the program debuted in Belltown in 2011, has watched it expand its operations to the East Precinct and plan to take on the North Precinct this summer. He was purposefully noncommittal about how LEAD would look when the Burien community finishes its design process.
“It depends on resources available. Access to health care may look a little different as well,” Candela said. “There might be a lot of similarities.”
There are a few elements that are core to the LEAD model.
The first is buy-in at all levels: community, prosecutors, case managers and law enforcement.
In the “normal” way of doing things, social services providers and law enforcement often find themselves working at cross-purposes, Candela said. One group is tasked with helping people who struggle with mental health and drug addiction by connecting them to services; the other must enforce the law, which can LEAD to criminalization and incarceration.
But police have the unique advantage of being in the trenches, working the same beat and seeing the same faces, Candela said. That, coupled with LEAD’s rapid-response caseworkers — caseworkers can arrive on site in 10 to 30 minutes — creates a potent force to literally meet people where they’re at.
“It’s working together versus working at odds,” Candela said, acknowledging that it initially felt unnatural.
Prosecutors make the third leg of the stool. As they pick up new cases, they have flexibility on when to file charges — which can leave a stain on a client’s record and make rehabilitation harder — and when to go another route.
The three parties come together at Operational Workgroup Meetings, convocations where they discuss clients’ cases and come up with strategies to help them.
Krystal Marx, a new councilmember in Burien and member of the regional Law, Safety & Justice Committee, sat in on one such gathering. She walked away impressed.
“I thought it was fantastic the way that people spoke about people,” Marx said. “They called them clients, spoke about them using their first name, talking about them in terms of the relationships that they had.”
When she ran for City Council in the summer of 2017, Marx knew that public safety was a critical issue on the minds of Burien residents. She agreed, but she wanted a new approach.
“I didn’t think criminalizing homelessness is something that should be a public safety act,” Marx said.
LEAD’s holistic methodology, which offers deep supports but with the backup of the criminal justice system, seemed like a better option. It had one other big thing going for it: “It’s coming from a data-driven place,” Marx said.
Researchers from the University of Washington formed the LEAD Evaluation Team, which has analyzed client outcomes in terms of housing, recidivism and overall usage of the criminal justice and legal systems.
The results are stark. LEAD clients were significantly more likely to get housing, employment and a “legitimate” income in any given month after their LEAD referral than in the month prior. They were 60 percent less likely to be arrested within the first six months than people not participating in the program, and overall had fewer jail bookings and spent fewer days in jail.
That comes at real cost savings to the community, which ends up paying more to incarcerate repeat offenders than it does to help them.
Marx pointed to a case study of one woman who had been booked 25 times for misdemeanor offenses or warrants and 157 days in the South Correctional Entity Misdemeanant Jail, better known as SCORE, and 43 days in jail.
“The base incarceration cost for this one individual was $48,000 before any medical treatment,” Marx said.
Still, there are sections of the community that view LEAD as enabling drug users or a get-out-of-jail free card for criminals. It’s not, Candela said.
“There is a lot of accountability,” he said. Prosecutors may decide to file charges. Police can still arrest folks. The team can reject program referrals — they do not accept people who engage in violent, predatory behavior, and don’t keep people who display it later.
He stresses that while LEAD is not a panacea for the community’s problems, neither are old methods of simply throwing people in jail.
“Just say no doesn’t work,” Candela said. “We are in a much worse place using that model.”
What would be better? More affordable housing and low-barrier health care access that gets people into methadone and buprenorphine treatment, to start, and reducing the stigma around people who need that kind of help.
Matta hopes that people will have the patience to give LEAD a fair shake. The program is funded for two years, and it can take time to convince people who have been ostracized from society and victimized by systems to trust that help is coming. As a person who has experienced homelessness and helped family members fight through addictions himself, Matta understands the weaknesses in the current system.
“The reality is this: there are a lot of people hurting psychologically, emotionally. They didn’t have the opportunity other people have had,” Matta said. “I’m extremely happy that we’re going to give this a try.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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