[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a Letter to the Editor, written by a verified resident(s). It does not necessarily reflect the opinions of The B-Town Blog, nor its staff:]

Burien’s LEAD program

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Burien's LEAD program 'seems to be working' 1

Burien is already a model of what steps toward integrating social services with a police force can look like. According to Chief Boe’s recent police services report (see https://drive.google.com/file/d/1IaLeXFoGyRs2BH87zgcTkyxS-w3ki4nB/view), Burien has the second lowest crime rate per capita in South King County despite our number of police officers (per resident) being the lowest in the region. While there are surely multiple factors at play, we attribute part of our success in this area to our LEAD program. 

LEAD traditionally stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, but now that referrals to the program can come from the community as well as police officers, it has come to be known as Let Everyone Advance with Dignity. The program outreaches to people who have become involved in the criminal legal system, have behavioral health challenges such as mental illness or drug addiction, and are living in extreme poverty. The potential participants could be engaging in criminal trespass, low-level drug offenses, prostitution or theft, among other illegal activites. LEAD brings together the professionals who encounter these individuals: police, prosecutors and case managers. Together these teams work with the clients using a harm reduction lens, that helps them improve their lives while also reducing harm on the community. This can include seeking supportive services, treatment, housing, health care or job training. They also track and monitor participants’ progress and work together to anticipate and prevent issues that may get in the way of success. 

Some clients come into the program at the point of arrest. If an officer thinks they are an appropriate client for LEAD, they can contact an outreach worker to come out immediately and screen them for the program and divert the client out of prosecution. This is not an easy path or a “one off”. The program’s success is in helping the participant to work hard to get their life on track, allowing them to become positive, contributing members of our community.

LEAD’s mission is to reduce problematic behavior by addressing the whole person, something the traditional criminal legal system can not do. When successful, this is a benefit to the entire community. ACLU Burien People Power supports this view of justice as a process for making things right, rather than punishment as such. We advocate for the least punitive model that works. 

LEAD seems to be working. An evaluation by researchers at the University of Washington (see http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/1185392/26121870/1428513375150/LEAD_EVALUATION_4-7-15.pdf?token=VeaWL8bE0pbbTSB9frFA8t4XEN8%3D) in 2015 showed that LEAD significantly reduced recidivism. People in LEAD were 58 percent less likely than people in the control group to be arrested. In Burien, LEAD has moved people into housing, treatment, and services. Burien officers note that their engagement with clients has improved, and that some who have had challenging relationships with the public are relating to the community better as well.

We are thankful that Burien’s LEAD program funding was renewed for another two years’ by King County. The program continues to need community support and awareness in order to be effective. While it has been in operation for two years, many are still unaware of the work that is happening in Burien. 

LEAD is not a quick fix or a cure-all solution, either for people in crisis or for crime prevention. A successful LEAD outcome removes one person from the cycle of arrest, brief incarceration and further arrests, without draconian sentencing or harsh punishment that is ineffective. Allowing LEAD to do what it is good at – pairing individuals with services – frees up Law Enforcement resources to be more active and proactive in other areas.

LEAD is also not a singular solution to the complex problems of poverty, homelessness, or drug addiction. Its core function is to reduce criminal behavior, which means that it only outreaches people who are already involved in the justice system. Our position is that the LEAD program is a step in the right direction and should be expanded in Burien to include more preventative services and identify people who do not have history with the justice system but who need the services it provides. 

LEAD is a successful model (https://www.leadbureau.org) that is being replicated throughout Washington and around the country. It works because it looks at the needs of the whole person, considers the community, and brings various stakeholders into conversation around the best solutions for each individual. Its mission and goals are rooted in justice. The program is nimble enough to adapt to new data and change with the times. The program works alongside our traditional legal system, doing  work that police officers regularly report not feeling trained or equipped for. It frees them up to focus their energy where it is needed, at the same time freeing up resources to expand preventative programs. To fully understand the program requires a shift in perspective for pretty much everyone involved. Burien is once again leading by example and we are so proud of our city’s willingness to take the LEAD.

Sarah Moore & Nancy Kick
Co-Chairs, ACLU Burien People Power 

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