Seattle Police Test Taking Drug Offenders Straight to Treatment

Seattle's Belltown neighborhood, located just south of the iconic Space Needle, is a popular night spot for young professionals, and its high-rise condos are home to many Microsoft and employees. The neighborhood also has been unable to shake a persistent problem with low-level drug crime and prostitution, trouble that businesses complain makes their patrons concerned for their own safety.
A new pilot program in Seattle gives police officers an alternative to clogging up jails with low-level criminals. At a time when Washington State is weighing big cuts in correctional programs, many hope the Seattle program will show a new way to improve public safety while saving taxpayer dollars.

Now, Belltown is the site of a new approach to policing drug-fueled street crime, one that the strategy's supporters hope will reduce crime while saving public safety dollars. The first-in-the-nation program gives individual police officers the discretion to take persons suspected of some low-level crimes, such as public intoxication or drug possession, straight to treatment rather than arresting them and booking them through the jail. Offenders who decline treatment are arrested as usual, and go through the normal criminal justice process.

The program, known as "law enforcement assisted diversion," or LEAD, has been operational for a little more than a month. Police, prosecutors and defense attorneys all are hoping that the approach will lessen frustration with what they agree is a waste of time and resources that go into arresting and processing some of the same people over and over again.

"We're out in the community, we know (the offenders) by name, know their situations," says Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for the Seattle Police Department. "And we're tired of the revolving door, too."

The approach has worked in the United Kingdom. Will it work here? States and cities across the country will be watching closely to see if the program produces real cost savings for courts, jails and prisons, one of its main goals. The program is being rolled out as Washington State faces a budget shortfall of nearly $2 billion, which will likely be filled by major cuts to social services.

Roger Fairfax, an associate professor of law at George Washington University says that if LEAD really does save communities money, "I could see other jurisdictions adopting it in a heartbeat." Baltimore, New Orleans, Oakland and the state of New Mexico already have expressed interest in the program.

Evolution in strategy

The program arose out of discussions beginning in 2008 between the Seattle Police Department and The Defender Association, a local nonprofit indigent defense agency. The two sides had a combative relationship related to litigation over a separate issue. But they found common cause in their dislike of cycling drug offenders through the justice system, and began discussing alternatives. "Everybody had to move off their spot to get to this terrain," says Lisa Daugaard, deputy director of The Defender Association and a primary force behind LEAD.

To make the program a reality, Daugaard secured $4 million in grants from five private foundations, including the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. The funding, spread out over four years, pays for the services offenders receive instead of going to jail: housing assistance, job training, education opportunities, and substance abuse treatment. Proponents hope that by the end of the pilot period, the program will be able to demonstrate enough cost savings that it can operate without private funding.

"Treatment is expensive," says Dan Satterberg, King County's prosecuting attorney. "But it's less expensive than booking people in jail. Jail is the most expensive and may be the least effective way to deal with drug crimes."

Satterburg likens the program to an evolution of the popular drug court model, in which offenders are given the choice of completing court-supervised drug treatment rather than jail time. With LEAD, the court is completely taken out of the equation, and addicts are given immediate access to treatment and social services in the hopes that they will decide to change their lives and stop using drugs.

The strategy relies heavily on the discretion of local police officers, who decide which offenders to arrest and which ones to take to treatment instead. Under the rules of the program, officers are not supposed to refer anyone to LEAD who has a violent criminal record. Generally speaking, drug users and small-time peddlers are eligible but serious drug dealers are not. An advisory board has been created to regularly review the circumstances behind each case referred to LEAD and track the results.

The pilot is limited to the Belltown neighborhood, and is only operational on random days so that the outcomes of offenders who go through the program can be compared against those who do not. The program is expected to serve between 100 and 120 people per year.

A backdrop of budget cuts

LEAD is being rolled out as Washington State faces a dire budget situation. Governor Chris Gregoire has asked all state agencies to submit possible budget reductions in anticipation of a special legislative session beginning November 28. The impact on the criminal justice system could be huge. The Department of Corrections has proposed eliminating parole supervision for most offenders and eliminating drug treatment except where required by drug courts. Gregoire has tentatively endorsed a less harsh reduction — two years of supervision for sex offenders and one year for all other offenders — but has said that even these alternatives cause her concern.

In the face of the possible cuts, Daugaard says, LEAD's private funding is that much more essential. "Now, because of the dismantling of the social safety net, these LEAD resources may be the only way that some people may be able to get treatment, housing, and other services," Daugaard said at a press conference announcing the launch of the LEAD program.

The program's success now hinges on the city's ability to keep the program on track. "Right now," says Daugaard, "the burden is on us to show that with some investment up front, we can realize enough public savings to keep the program going." 

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