Over the past two decades, Public Defender Association Executive Director Lisa Daugaard has changed how criminal justice looks in Seattle. Her Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program is now the gold standard for progressive law enforcement across the nation. Will LEAD survive the Trump years and “Seattle is Dying” backlash? The smart money is on “yes.” Lisa Daugaard will keynote the Real Change 25th Anniversary Breakfast on September 19th.
Tim Harris: You have been called Seattle’s Reformer-in-Chief. Is that a title you’re happy to own?
Lisa Daugaard: Well, um, no. (laughs). I’m not sure if it’s the chief or the reformer part that seems wrong. I’m not the sole architect of any of these ideas, so the “chief” doesn’t fit. And I’ve either been an attacker or a builder, but I do not regard what we’re doing as reform. It’s really about replacement. The court system is just the wrong place to take on what’s wrong and make it better.
What has to be built instead is a system where people who are harmed and upset feel responded to, and the people who caused the harm are given an opportunity to stop acting in that way and have the tools necessary to get there. Most of us know from our own lives that trying to change the way we do things and the way we react is just deep, deep work, and hard to do when you’re feeling under threat. Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion is the door to take that community energy that results in the police being called and transform that into connection to community-based care that is trauma-informed and offered in a way that reaches very marginalized populations that systems are typically very poor at reaching.
TH: How has LEAD changed the conversation?
LD: We’ve been able to do this because of people who had fought big struggles over whether the old approach — arresting our way out of this problem — was racially biased. Had we not made a lot of progress with that, we wouldn’t have had the leverage to require a conversation about doing things differently. When we started, there were a few diversion structures for people with high-acuity mental health needs, but for drug-involved activity there was nothing. Now, the concept that you can do diversion from the system altogether — before people hit the jail and before people hit the court — has spread. LEAD has been replicated to more than 60 jurisdictions around the country, and is viewed as the gold standard of this work because it is so intensive. With the building of new relationships, the long-term nature of the intervention and the complete paradigm shift that it represents, LEAD has established that this is the thing that we should be talking about.
TH: Yet, we seem to be in a backlash moment where there is frustration with the pace of change.
LD: We have been talking for years about how this is coming. This is a self-inflicted injury by the criminal justice reform contingent. We’ve apparently given people the choice between “do nothing, or do the thing we used to do,” and if that’s the choice, they’re going to pick the thing we used to do. We have to provide a new paradigm that is thoughtful, responsive, transparent, accountable and effective.
We do that right now like we’re scattering seed corn across the landscape — a little here and a little there — but there’s not an intentional switch over with the appropriate resources to replace a half-a-billion-dollar-a-year system with something that can stand up in its place. So people are rightly frustrated. The onus is on the builders, to build rapidly to scale something that can hold the weight of replacing that. We’re not there. We’re not nearly there.
It’s not like we don’t know how to do it. But it does require leadership to plant the flag and say, “I’m going there, all the way there, and I’m going to go so far there that I can’t get back.” It’s scary to unequivocally commit to this new era, because it isn’t going to work perfectly and you’re going to be held accountable for its failures. But the only way forward is forward. Doing it anemically and partially, without admitting what we’re doing, is the wrong way to go about it.
TH: If you could wave a wand and put the missing pieces in place, what would those look like?
LD: We would have LEAD at scale throughout King County, but it would have a different infrastructure. It would have data sharing platforms that offer the knowledge people like first responders need. Like, this person has a case manager and an appointment for housing next week, and they have a 72-hour window to come in and sign for it or they’ll go back to the bottom of the list and it could take three years to get back on top. We need to connect people to a much more housing- rich environment, in which we have utilized not just the most expensive option of permanent supporting housing but also more flexible strategies, like master leasing and deep rent subsidies that place people in existing housing stock.
We would also prioritize at least some of those resources for people who are most impactful in neighborhoods, so that there is a solution for people whose behavior creates a legitimacy crisis. We need clinical strategies for dealing with methamphetamines. Without that, the conversation will grind to a halt because we’re going to see episodes that are so troubling to people that it feels like things are out of control, even though they’re small in number. We need a back door to the civil commitment process that people would engage in voluntarily because it’s attractive and culturally matches what you would select for yourself, so it becomes a reasonable alternative to criminal detention. We need to make sure that housing providers can retain very high-barrier people in housing, and they need a lot more help than they have now. Essentially, we need deep mitigators of eviction crises that don’t need to play out as evictions. Those are just some places that I would suggest that we start.
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TH: Are safe consumption sites a political non-starter now?
LD: Yes, a stand-alone supervised consumption facility now is politically untenable for complicated reasons that I do not think we can break through at this time. It’s important on our side to not get too enraptured by the shiny new toy. The goal is not a supervised consumption site. The goal is to improve drug-user health. If supervised consumption isn’t the thing that can be done right now, its our obligation to look at other roads that are available.
Public officials, I’ve noticed, tend to conflate drug-user health with treatment. Treatment is very important, and drug-user health engagement strategies are for people who are not doing treatment. At any given time, that’s most drug users. So we need to fill in that space. The fact is, a single site was never going to be for most drug users. It would serve a tiny number of people and then be a demonstration model. Well, we can demonstrate the same approach in other ways and at a lower cost.
So our new suggestion is to apply the strategy of supervised consumption in the network of existing shelters and service providers where this activity is already taking place. There are a number of other things on the table that are new, like a stimulant replacement therapy pilot and a proposal for a dedicated housing stream for the quote-unquote prolific offender population.
I don’t see that there’s an identified pool of funding that doesn’t already have somebody’s name on it, so therefore we run the risk of having a lot of nominal agreement, just as we’ve had in the past with supervised consumption, and zero political will to make it happen. So our job is to change the political calculus and make this a priority because people demand it. We have some work to do in that regard, so we’ve got to be in serious organizing mode for the time being.
TH: How much of that comes down to humanizing drug users? It seems like a lot of people feel that this is behavior that should be punished, rather than helping people feel better about who they are?
LD: I think there are people who believe that you change behavior through punishment and stigma, but they are really small in number. The bigger threat is the notion that there is a simple approach to these issues. Treatment means housing. Treatment is being treated as a person with autonomy and choice. Treatment is being given space to say how much you were hurt when you lost the only picture you had of your mom during a sweep. That’s all treatment, because it assists people in reconfiguring their feeling about being alive, about what they want out of life and how much hope they have.
I think that a lot of people are driving problematic and harmful policy suggestions from the best of intentions. They have oversimplified what the answer is and are not listening to the empirical evidence of what actually helps. So to me, even above human stories, we need to teach one another about how people get better. We all just need to get locked into a room with Dr. Gabor Maté for about a week and things would get a lot better. People need to increase their literacy about how recovery happens and how healing happens.
TH: We’ve talked before about how policy is best formed when people are uniting around common interests and finding the areas where we agree, and the worst conditions for policy to get formed is during political seasons, when it’s freighted with electoral demagoguery and simple answers. We seem to be in the latter right now. How do we find our way back to that more reasonable conversation?
LD: I think campaign season is a huge opportunity for civil society to get its act together and demand that candidates provide answers that are grounded in common sense and actual experience and are the opposite of demagoguery. We should make it top priority to line up with one another and create a picket fence so that no person can get elected without agreeing to do the things that we all agree are the right things to do. When we act like that together, we exercise an enormous amount of control over local politics.
Right now, folks are not choosing to work together in that way. I think the common interest broke over the Head Tax — not the one that passed but the one that failed, the fall before — where businesses felt so insulted and offended about the way the conversation went down that they decided to go to war. That is a huge shame. They have done a brilliant job of what they said they’d do. This is two years of revenge, and congratulations, they have shredded the consensus that we once had.
But the reason they did it was out of very human feeling. They’ve said it’s not about feelings, but it is about feelings. They are a progressive business community. They are not mass incarcerators. They have supported wet housing and they’ve supported LEAD, and they all sit on the board of Plymouth Housing Group. There was a rupture of the pact that was not their doing. This is now an overreaction on their part, and everyone has the obligation to have the maturity to see that, “My feelings are hurt, but now I’m acting in a way that’s counter-productive to my own interest.” I would say that business is failing that test here, but it came out of a very understandable wish to be treated respectfully. We can give that for free. It doesn’t cost anything.
TH: What makes you hopeful now?
LD: We still have not seen anyone walk away from the work we’ve started. I’m very hopeful because the thing actually works. We can do this. We see evidence of that all over the place. When people are willing to think totally differently than they have before, if you can’t make good on that openness, its just a huge waste. I really hope we can get to scale in this new paradigm fast enough that we can reward all of those people, with all the incredible ideological diversity there, who have given this a chance. They deserve it. They deserve to look at the rest of the country and be like, “We figured this out. We’re right. It paid off.” We all deserve to participate in that self-congratulation, but we have to deliver the thing first.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
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