Nationally acclaimed County program ensures low-level offenders get back on their feet, stay out of jail

In 2014, Sheriff John Urquhart directed the Metro Transit Police Bicycle Emphasis Enforcement Squad (BEES) to train and implement the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program. Since its implementation, it has become a roaring success.

The program addresses low-level crimes, focusing on drug and prostitution in many areas of downtown Seattle, White Center and the Skyway area of unincorporated King County. Initially the only downtown area included was the Belltown corridor, but it quickly expanded to all of downtown in May 2014. It recently grew again in August 2016 to comprise the East Precinct area, now allowing for referrals from Capitol Hill, the Central District and all of the International District. The program gives law enforcement officers an alternative to booking offenders by allowing for redirection to community-based services instead of jail and prosecution.

“We were asking ‘How do we reach folks?’’, said Marcus Williams, Captain of Public Safety in the King County Sheriff’s office. “”We realized we have to address their underlying situation and help change their behavior.”

“LEAD is based on a harm reduction model that basically benefits each person and the community.”

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The BEES are the driving force behind the success of the LEAD program.

The program formally began in October 2011 as one of the first pre-booking diversion programs in the U.S. It is funded entirely by private foundations and has been enormously successful in reducing criminal activity and improving quality of life for its participants and the greater community.

The harm reduction model mentioned uses collaboration and non-traditional community partners to help people get back on their feet, and is overseen by the LEAD policy workgroup. Made up of representatives from the King County Prosecutor’s Office, Evergreen Treatment Services Reach program, Seattle Mayor’s office and many others, the workgroup looks to address every aspect of recovery for LEAD participants.

“Each situation is different because we check to see what does this person need to focus on,” said Marcus. “When they’re ready, the staff from Evergreen come by to offer programs and services.”

“The staff do screenings, not just for addiction therapy but in a more holistic approach offering transportation, housing and medical assistance.”

By making progress on the health and well-being of low-level offenders, the LEAD program is able to ensure the growth of a healthy and vibrant community. From the workgroup to the BEES on the streets, all are committed to helping program participants rise above their difficult circumstances.

“Many of our LEAD candidates have a lot of guilt, and they nullify that guilt with an unhealthy substance or practice,” said Marcus. “You can’t just push a button to make these issues go away, but we don’t give up on them.”

“There is a reality to this, but we’re trying, and we’re trying as hard as we can.”

The hard work is paying off. A 2015 University of Washington program evaluation showed that LEAD participants were 60 percent less likely to be arrested again within the first six months after completing the program. This reduction in repeat offenders is allowing participants to start a new chapter in their lives, while also improving public safety and reducing criminal behavior.

This success has not gone unnoticed. Cities all across the U.S. are taking note of the program and replicating it within their own jurisdictions. From San Francisco, C.A. to Santa Fe, N.M. to Albany, N.Y., King County has quickly become a nationally recognized program. Marcus attributes this to the intentionality of the program, as well as the method of reporting and monitoring results.

Marcus Williams, Captain of Public Safety in the King County Sheriff’s office

Marcus Williams, Captain of Public Safety in the King County Sheriff’s office

“Our guys out on the bikes are helping the program succeed because they can see that the process is designed to create tangible outcomes,” he said. “It lets deputies and other people know there’s accountability for the work being done.”

“It directly impacts the people our deputies, law enforcement and staff see on a daily basis.”

Marcus is proud the mission of LEAD has not wavered since it began, and continues to be a collaborative effort of multiple organizations working together to rehabilitate individuals to lead healthy, meaningful lives.

We are seeing our success numbers rise because the program stayed true to its original plan and didn’t morph into something else,” he said. “It finally addresses those people who haven’t hurt anyone but themselves, and allows them to get help.”

The LEAD program has been featured in several news outlets, including the Huffington Post, PBS FRONTLINE, HBO and others, and has also been highlighted in several short films and documentaries including “Drug Alternatives That Work – Overcriminalized: Substance Abuse” and “Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion”.

Find more information about the program on the King County website or at the program website www.leadkingcounty.org.