More drug users, prostitutes to get treatment instead of jail in expanded Seattle-area program

Authorities in King County, Washington, have expanded a program, in a major shift, in how low-level drug crimes and prostitution are dealt with throughout the county.

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More chronic, illegal drug users and prostitutes will be referred to treatment instead of booked into jail as the LEAD program – first launched in parts of Seattle in October of 2011 – spreads countywide.

Johnny Bousquet believes LEAD – which stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion – saved his life.

“I was homeless. I was addicted to heroin, meth and cocaine,” Bousquet told KIRO 7.

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Bousquet was a Seattle music executive on his way to fame and fortune after producing a music video starring members of the University of Washington football team, called “I’m A Husky Baby.”

Then five years ago, after divorce and depression, Bousquet was arrested for trying to sell drugs to an undercover Seattle police officer. 

Before he was booked, the SPD offered Bousquet the opportunity to enter rehab instead of jail as part of Seattle's then-new LEAD program. Bousquet accepted and has been clean and sober for the past seven months. 

“I didn’t think I had any hope, and I didn’t think anybody cared about people like me,” he said.

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“The one word I would use for what we have seen is hope,” Lisa Daugaard said, seven years after she helped launch LEAD in Seattle.

As director of the Public Defender Association, Daugaard and leaders from law enforcement, the city prosecutor's office and the community decided to create a new option for people facing low-level drug and prostitution crimes. Instead of jail, LEAD offers services to people caught with small amounts of illegal drugs.

LEAD’s goal, according to its website, is "to improve public safety and public order, and reduce the criminal behavior of people who participate in the program."

“Individuals over time do better in LEAD than they do in the justice system as usual,” Daugaard explained recently. “They commit fewer crimes, they recover, they live healthier lives and they cause few problems for other people.”

According to Najja Morris, LEAD’s National Support Bureau director, LEAD participants are 58% less likely to be re-arrested than chronic drug users sent to jail, where the chances for recovery are slim, she said. 

“People have a misconception that people are getting treatment in jails and prisons, and they’re actually better,” Morris said. “No. It’s making you feel better because this person is away for a while.”

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However, Morris said that even when LEAD is an option for law enforcement officers, “there are some people who do need to be removed from the community because they’re unsafe.” Drug users offered the option to enter LEAD “for the very large part are not unsafe to other individuals. The most harm they’re doing is to themselves,” according to Morris.

Every LEAD participant is partnered with a case manager who helps meet their needs and monitors progress, supporting them even when progress is slow, according to Devin Majqut, a LEAD supervisor.

“We don’t view relapse as a failure; it’s part of recovery,” Majqut said. “Our goal is to help people reduce the harm that is happening in their life because of their homelessness and because of their drug use."

After it launched in Seattle, LEAD has since been adopted in 20 cities and counties across the country, with dozens more on the way.

On Tuesday, King County will announce its city-by-city LEAD expansion, beginning with the City of Burien, according to County Executive Dow Constantine. 

“Studies have shown that this approach reduces recidivism, makes it less likely people will offend in the future and makes it more likely they’ll get their lives on track, over the long term for public safety,” Constantine told KIRO 7 on Monday. “That’s what you want to have happen.”

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One of the people who will be watching LEAD's local expansion closely is Elisabeth James, who has seen her Ballard neighborhood struggle with homelessness and addiction in recent years. 

James is co-founder of Speak Out Seattle, a nonpartisan coalition advocating for solutions to public safety, homelessness and drug addiction according to its Facebook page.

James would like to see more information about LEAD's impact on neighborhoods, not just participants.

She said LEAD provides “a lot of different services, but they don’t report on how many people might actually be rearrested, or who fall through the cracks in the program and end up back in jail for something more serious.”

Speak Out Seattle hasn’t come out with “a formal, ‘yes we support this’ or ‘we oppose this,’” James said about LEAD. “We want to have more current data and the more inclusive data on the effect on the public in general.”

However, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg is fully on board. “This is science; this is medically approved science,” Satterberg told KIRO 7 about LEAD’s approach and success rate.

According to Satterberg, the King County Prosecutor’s Office spent more than $3.5 million in 2017 processing low-level drug cases that could be referred to LEAD; more than the $3.1 million he said the county is expecting to add to its LEAD spending each year.

Satterberg also said doubters should know that discretion about who will be offered a place in LEAD -- instead of being booked into jail – is left to law enforcement alone. 

“The police officer can decide: Does this person deserve a break? Could they use some help? And if they decide no, this person is violent, dangerous, they’re a drug dealer not just a drug addict, then the officer doesn’t have to use that tool. They can continue to take people to jail,” Satterberg said.

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“But for those tiny amounts of drugs that people possess because they’re daily drug users, let’s get them help. Let’s get them help instead of jail. Jail we know doesn’t work and costs taxpayers millions of dollars a year.” 

After Tuesday’s announcement of the intent to expand LEAD countywide, Satterberg said the King County Council will vote on whether to implement LEAD and how to fund it.

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