Thirty-four-year-old Misti Barrickman used to get arrested in Belltown "constantly," she told me this afternoon. She was addicted to heroin and crack cocaine. She prostituted herself in order to fund her habit. But she knew she needed to get on methadone in order to break her addiction. Finally, she signed up for treatment. But on the streets, she kept getting arrested by Seattle police for low level street crimes, landing her in jail, causing her to miss drug treatment appointments.
Fast forward to 2015: Barrickman is studying at Seattle Central College and has been sober for two years. She plans to move home to Alaska this summer to take care of her elderly father. What broke the cycle of jail and addiction, she said today at a press conference, was the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program. "I think it should be everywhere in the United States," she said.
Instead of throwing her in jail for the umpteenth time, a Seattle police officer referred her to LEAD case manager Chris Coates, who, over the past few years, patiently worked with Barrickman to get her into methadone treatment and stable housing. "They bought me the essentials that I needed," she explained, "so I didn't have to go out shoplifting."
At the press event, officials from the City of Seattle, King County, and their respective police departments sung the praises of the program, particularly in light of a new University of Washington study that shows the program is achieving results. The study shows that LEAD, which allows police officers to refer nonviolent criminal offenders to treatment and case management instead of arresting them, reduces recidivism by roughly 60 percent among those who enter into the program (over a six-month period), compared to a control group of those handled by the traditional justice system. (City Lab has a great deep dive into the program's origins, the study's findings, and how it works, likening it to Hamsterdam from the show The Wire, over here.)
As of now, the program is limited to Belltown and the downtown corridor. Liz Campbell, the head of the Belltown Community Council, said the area used to be far more dangerous. "Occasionally we had sweeps by frustrated police officers," Campbell said, "And it was not working."
With the data from UW in hand, officials said they plan to expand LEAD, though they wouldn't commit to specific targets. According to a recent report in Real Change, the program is being under-utilized in Seattle. It could handle 500 clients, but only has about 250. And less than one hundred Seattle police officers are currently authorized to make LEAD referrals, if they choose to, instead of making an arrest. Seattle police chief Kathleen O'Toole indicated she wants to train more officers to use the program—without citing a particular number. "SPD is one hundred percent behind LEAD," she said.
"LEAD has passed an important test in its early development," declared Mayor Ed Murray, "and it's now time to take it to the next level." But the mayor said he's looking at expanding LEAD within the corridor where it's operating, rather than throughout the city. He said it isn't needed in every part of Seattle.
The genius behind LEAD, it must be noted, is Public Defender Association Deputy Director Lisa Daugaard, who, according to The Guardian, first developed the program in partnership with former interim Seattle police chief (now King County Sheriff Chief Deputy) Jim Pugel. "A win would be changing a landscape that looks intractable," Daugaard said when the program launched in 2011. "The approach we’ve taken to date," she said (i.e. the war on drugs, mass incarceration), "is the single most expensive way to address the problem—and it hasn't worked." LEAD costs about $1.5 million per year; UW plans to release a study later this spring looking at cost savings compared with the traditional justice system.
"It's time for a new approach," Daugaard said. The takeaway from today is unambiguous: LEAD's approach is working.
This post has been updated with the correct spelling of Barrickman's first name.