Andre Witherspoon discusses why LEAD is vital.
Andre Witherspoon discusses why LEAD is "vital." Nathalie Graham

Andre Witherspoon, 55, was in downtown Seattle seven years ago selling drugs to support his own drug habit. He pulled down his sock to fish out his drugs when a flock of bike police pulled up.

They knew Witherspoon from repeatedly interacting with him. They offered him a deal. Either he could go to jail and get a felony, or he could enroll in a program and get help. He chose the program, LEAD. But, he said at a press conference today, he really only took it as a way to get out of jail. Not to stay sober.

"Consequently, I found out it was very beneficial," Witherspoon said. "LEAD is vital."

He was allowed to focus on getting sober while LEAD case managers helped him find housing, helped him get acclimated back to being in sobriety, helped him get on methadone, and much more. "Addicts need help and they can't do it on their own," he said. "LEAD," he snapped his fingers three times for emphasis, "is on it and it would be a waste to eliminate and not fund that program."

Local organizations are calling for the immediate funding for Seattle's Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, a nationally recognized diversion program dubbed by the New York Times as the "way to end the war on drugs." Money was allocated to LEAD in Seattle's 2020 budget but the program hasn't seen a dime of that yet, nor have they gotten a contract from the city.

Mayor Jenny Durkan's office announced late last month that they would be contracting with LEAD in the coming weeks for the full $6.2 million outlined in the budget. They said that would be coming within a matter of weeks.

In January, the Seattle City Council requested in a letter that funding be released by March 1. That deadline has come and gone. There is still no contract.

At a press conference today, Councilmember Kshama Sawant said that the council needs to "pressure the mayor's office privately and publicly" and that they need to "give the mayor a deadline" to release the funding for LEAD.

Currently, the program, which specializes in individualized case management to get high-risk people like addicts out of jail and connected to the help they need, has been operating without funding for two months. While the mayor's office has pushed back on the idea that Durkan is "withholding funds" from the program and that this is a normal contracting procedure, Sawant said that it's accurate to say withholding since this "was stipulated in the budget and had unanimous support." However, she said, the council has seen these kinds of delays before with progressive provisos.

Except, Aaron Burkhalter with the Public Defenders Association, the organization that manages LEAD, told The Stranger that while delays happen with budgeting programs, this program has already been funded before and is based on an existing program.

"It's not as if they're trying to find an organization to run it," Burkhalter said.

Sawant said that if funding is still delayed she may explore a supplemental budget amendment to fund LEAD.

A broad spectrum of organizations from the Downtown Seattle Association, the ACLU, Transit Riders Union, and many more sent a letter urging the mayor to fund LEAD to the full contracted amount outlined in the budget. As of early February, LEAD had no idea when or if it would receive its funding, project managers with the program told The Stranger.

That funding is necessary for LEAD to function. Currently, caseworkers are being stretched thin with high caseloads and are still receiving LEAD program referrals. With that budget money, LEAD will also be able to expand throughout Seattle.