LEADing By Example: Seattle’s New Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program


Seattle, WA could be considered revolutionary when it comes to its approach to treating drug abuse in criminals. In fact, they are doing what no state before them has ever done. The city of Seattle is putting laws in place that aim towards helping addicts instead of locking them up—and so far it seems to be working.

LEAD – Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion

LEAD is a four year old street based harm reduction program for alcoholics and drug addicts in downtown Seattle. It is similar to the way Portugal handles drug addiction, but the program is the first of its kind in the United States. Using cooperation between law enforcement, prosecutors, and harm reduction experts, LEAD tries to help participants get their lives together rather than locking them up. And so far it seems to be working.

The Story Of Wade Johnson

That is, so far. According to an addict name Wade Johnson, Seattle’s new approach has change his life, for the better.  Mr. Johnson’s story is pretty generic – A 35 year old who has lived in Seattle since 1988, minus the time he had to spend in prison for robbery and drug charges.  Three years ago, Wade joined the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD). This happened after talking with a case manager on the streets of Belltown, which is well known for the Space Needle, and real needles alike (where junkies hang out).

After Johnson expressed interest in getting clean, a LEAD case manager consulted with the cops who knew Johnson and reached a consensus that he was a good candidate for the program. LEAD supplied Johnson, who was homeless at the time, with housing and a support network that he could use to change his life.

The Numbers Show That LEAD Is Helping

Wade Johnson is not only person to benefit from Seattle’s relatively new approach to address drug addiction in criminals. Research has shown that the 203 participants in the program are up to 58 percent less likely to commit further crimes compared to people who are prosecuted and imprisoned. This is according to an independent review conducted by the University of Washington. Of course, more studies will come, but this first look seems to be a good sign of things to come.

“The stats are so robust, which took me by surprise,” said Susan Collins, a clinical psychologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine who co-authored the study. “The offenders were basically committing crimes of homelessness, they’re basically just [doing enough petty crime] to survive. This program is trying to break the jail-to-street-to-jail cycle. But, it’s not like drug court, it doesn’t involve abstinence, and doesn’t require people to stop using substances.”

The Future Of LEAD And Other Programs Like It

Even though it is only a pilot program, LEAD seeks to redirect drug users who face potential criminal charges to social services such as housing, healthcare, job training and treatment. And one of the biggest differences between LEAD and other programs in American cities is that the program doesn’t have a time limit or termination date that requires participants to get a job or retain housing for a set period. The reasoning behind this is to allow any and all resources to help someone for however long they need. It doesn’t allow for an exit signs. Not only that, but even the addict were to relapse they could still come back. Johnson mentioned that himself in an interview with Vice.

Talking about his personal experience with LEAD, Johnson admits he “didn’t get it on the first try,” saying he struggled with addiction and relapse but still received critical support. “I still had that itch,” he said. “And sometimes I went out and scratched it. But they were still there, and supported me.”

LEAD’s future is uncertain. The program’s annual $1.5 million budget — a bill split between the city of Seattle and several private foundations — will run dry in early 2016. Proponents say future studies are needed not only to demonstrate LEAD’s efficacy, but also to prove that it’s cost effective because it conserves law enforcement and justice system resources.

Regardless of what happens to LEAD going forward, for Johnson it was a game changer. It’s clear that treating addiction rather than imprisoning addicts for drug-related crimes is more beneficial to everyone involve.

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