Durkan still hasnt funded the nationally-lauded diversion program.
Durkan still hasn't funded the nationally-lauded diversion program. Lester Black

In her State of the City address, Mayor Jenny Durkan patted herself and the City of Seattle on the back for utilizing diversion programs when it comes to criminal justice. She failed to mention Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), a nationally recognized diversion program dubbed by the New York Times as the "way to end the war on drugs." Maybe that's because she's still withholding funding from LEAD. According to LEAD project managers, LEAD still doesn't have a contract with the city for 2020.

As Erica Barnett originally reported in January, Durkan has withheld the funding for LEAD that was agreed upon in the 2020 budget she signed. Barnett reported that this—a mayor not funding what is in the approved budget—is "unprecedented." On top of that, LEAD has not even received a contract for this year, according to the Public Defender Association which runs LEAD.

Why has Durkan not committed to supporting a first-of-its-kind program that is getting people out of the criminal justice system, especially when she proposed expanding LEAD citywide in her 2017 mayor campaign?

Durkan and the mayor's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The mayor's office responded Friday saying that they wanted to check with the Housing Services Department and Lisa Daugaard, the executive director of the PDA, before providing comment. "We didn’t want LEAD to read about it in the Stranger 😊," a spokesperson wrote over email. This post will be updated if we ever hear back.

What's LEAD?
The program, which is high-intensity case management designed to get people the help they need while keeping them out of jail, started in Seattle in 2011 and is still growing. It works on a referral system: the community can refer individuals to LEAD and so can law enforcement. REACH case managers, Seattle Police Department officers, the King County Sheriff's Department, the Department of Corrections, and prosecutors all collaborate on how to help each person in the program.

But, LEAD can't keep up with the referrals they have, according to Hector Herrera, a caseworker with REACH. Caseworkers are over-worked, juggling more cases than they typically would.

"A lot of what [clients] need is time intensive and most of our [caseworkers] have 30 cases," Hector Herrera told The Stranger, "so it’s a lot of work. But we do it."

They've had to "prioritize" the cases they have, said Jesse Benet, the deputy director of the PDA, which manages LEAD, to The Stranger. "That feels heartbreaking," Benet said about prioritization which entails shutting down their "social contact referrals," or, referrals from everyday members of the community.

The goal is to expand LEAD but to do that, LEAD needs money and, so far, it's not getting that from the city.

What's Going on with LEAD's Contract?

LEAD received $2.2 million in the Seattle budget leading into 2019. That was not enough for LEAD's growth and the number of client referrals—mostly by law enforcement—that the program got, in 2019, according to Tara Moss, the project director for LEAD in the Public Defenders Association (PDA). For the 2020 budget, LEAD, which is currently only operating in four Seattle Police Department precincts, needed more money for anticipated growth, Moss said. Durkan only allocated the program $2.6 million, nearly the same as the too-low 2019 amount. To cover for that, the Seattle City Council tacked on an additional $3.5 million and $1.5 million in private matching from the Ballmer group contingent on the council's money.

That was the budget that Durkan signed on Nov. 25, 2019. At a Dec. 12, 2019 meeting of all LEAD Stakeholders, LEAD found out that they weren't getting that $3.5 million, Moss told The Stranger. Instead, an intent-to-contract proposal (note: not an actual contract) from the Seattle Department of Human Services sent on Dec. 27 said they would get the $2.6 million Durkan originally proposed "with the rest contingent on an evaluation by New York City-based consultant Bennett Midland," Barnett reported.

That report by Bennet Midland will supposedly start in March and will be finalized in "spring," according to correspondence between the mayor's office to the Seattle City Council. That does not give LEAD a timeline for a contract or any funding.

"LEAD is already working with nearly double the caseloads maximum," Jesse Rawlins, a LEAD project manager said, "and there’s not a guarantee for when this funding is going to be coming through. LEAD is already in this really tight spot with what it’s able to do and now there’s just this big uncertainty that’s hanging over it, pending a decision from the mayor."

With LEAD in Limbo, What's Next?

LEAD project managers say they have not seen a dime from what was outlined in the city's 2020 budget. They haven't gotten an actual contract and the one they were promised by mid-2020 will not include additional city council funds.

"We have to address this in some sort of way," Katrina Johnson, a LEAD project manager told The Stranger, "Do we end up dialing back? Are supposed to hang out there in the ether and not know what's going to happen?"

For now, operations haven't changed, according to Johnson, but LEAD will start having to make some tough calls in the near future. PDA does not have the financial ability to absorb the lack of funds until the mayor’s office releases the funding.

"Can we keep forking out money with no return date? Does it mean we pull out of the precincts we're in?" Johnson asked. "We should be talking about expanding as opposed to dialing back. We haven’t even addressed the most racially diverse parts of the city. We’re being held up by funding and that’s sad."

"We need a contract," Benet said, "the written document of the city’s agreement with us to fund this work."

A community letter urging the mayor to fund LEAD is circulating. The Seattle City Council also sent the mayor a letter urging her to "execute a contract" by March 1. It's a follow-up to a letter sent by the Seattle City Council Public Safety and Human Services committee at the end of January.

"The need is urgent," the council letter reads, "and confusion about what the city intends is only increasing with the passing weeks. LEAD still has no contract at all for a substantial ongoing program—this is no way to treat a valued contractor."

If LEAD doesn't get the funding it was allocated in the budget, the letter says, and does not have the capacity to accept new referrals and keep expanding the program "the LEAD model in Seattle will be broken."

"We have all these players at the table and it is such a precious moment in time," Benet said. "It’s fundamentally promoting a public health response to a public health issue rather than asking the criminal legal system to respond to what is fundamentally a lack of access to responsive health and human services. If we break LEAD, we’re going to back to the thing that doesn’t work."