I’d like to think Seattle is past the point where the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program is considered controversial. Since LEAD began nine years ago in Belltown, this criminal diversion program has expanded throughout the downtown and to Burien and North Seattle.
Program founder Lisa Daugaard, who is always the first to say that LEAD was born out of a broad community of criminal justice innovators, recently won a MacArthur genius grant for meeting at-risk people where they’re at. LEAD is an internationally acclaimed alternative to expensive, life-ruining incarceration.
And there is no shortage of success stories.
Andre Witherspoon is a 55-year-old man who says LEAD “made him excited about sobriety.” In 2012, a low-level drug bust brought life-changing opportunity. As a non-violent offender, Witherspoon was given a 30-day window to decide whether LEAD was for him. At the last possible moment, he opted in.
“At first, I just thought it was a way to avoid jail,” he said. “Then I found out it worked.” LEAD gave Witherspoon the support he needed to focus on the one thing that mattered most: staying clean.
“When a person is addicted,” Witherspoon explained, “you become very detached from the whole concept of normal day-to-day living. Addiction is your comfort zone. Getting clean is like relearning to walk after having a stroke.”
Witherspoon’s experience is not unique. At various business and neighborhood forums this past year, people who agreed on little else regarding poverty crime in Seattle agreed on this: LEAD works, and needs to be expanded.
Last year, the Ballmer Group awarded LEAD a $1.5 million private grant on the condition that Seattle’s City Council pass a resolution to bring the program to scale.
The council embraced the opportunity, and unanimously voted for an additional $3.5 million for LEAD in the 2020 city budget. The mayor signed the budget into law, and it looked like this essential but overworked program was finally getting the full support it needs.
The funding could not have come at a better time. LEAD has been a victim of its own success. Recent program expansions have meant that their 20 case managers struggle to cover the gap between available resources and new referrals. The North Seattle expansion alone has resulted in 300 new referrals, as opposed to the 50 or so that were anticipated.
This has meant that program staff are overworked and struggle valiantly to keep up. Under these circumstances, the quality of services is bound to be compromised.
This is what makes Mayor Jenny Durkan’s unilateral decision to withhold funding pending further study so troubling. While additional program evaluation is fair and reasonable, if you really want to measure how well a program runs, you don’t start by taking a baseball bat to its knees.
You don’t ignore a track record of effectiveness, growth and national recognition. You don’t disregard the strong support of the community and the unanimous support of the City Council.
And you don’t put a $1.5 million foundation grant at risk. You just don’t.
On Friday Feb. 28, Real Change delivered a letter from LEAD to the mayor’s office demanding that city funds be released immediately. The letter was signed by 39 powerful community organizations ranging from Socialist Alternative to the Downtown Seattle Association.
“This community is committed to thoughtful and effective measures that will improve our collective health and safety,” the letter reads. “We see the LEAD program as one of the best and most widely supported sets of tools we have to respond to problem behaviors by people who do not belong in, and will not respond well to, jail or the criminal legal system. That is why we are eager to see the program stabilized, strengthened and spread, without further delay.”
Community pressure has led the mayor to reconsider, but after two months of operating without a contract, LEAD needs those funds released yesterday.
Here’s what this community needs from Durkan: No more withholding. No more delay. Build upon success by releasing LEAD’s funds now.
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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