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Imagine this situation: Someone is intoxicated, possibly struggling with a larger problem like addiction or poverty, and refusing to leave a business. The business owner calls the police. What should the police do?
“Traditionally, the police had two options: take them to the hospital or arrest them,” says Alyson Robbins, diversion attorney with the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office.
“We know exactly what happens,” she continues. “They’re charged with a crime. They rack up fees and costs. They’re not offered services or meaningful access to services. Their debts increase. And two months later the same thing happens.
“We’re not helping anybody,” she notes. “We’re not even helping the business owner, because this person is coming back to that business.”
Robbins and many community leaders think there should be a better way.
“They don’t need to be arrested and have consequences that potentially reduce their ability to find stable housing, access services, or get employment. What they need is some help,” says Robbins.
Now, there’s a new way for people in Washtenaw County to get that help: The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion and Deflection (LEADD) program, which launched October 2021.
“LEADD gives deputies on the streets a third option, which is to see if this person is interested and willing to be connected to some help,” says Robbins. If they are, the program can help not only the individual, but the court system, business owners, and community as a whole.
The Washtenaw County LEADD program is based on King County’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion / Let Everyone Advance with Dignity (LEAD) program, which began in 2011. LEAD used a new harm reduction based case management approach for low-level offenses, with the goal of reducing racial disparities.
The program was a success, prompting the creation of the LEAD National Support Bureau to support other jurisdictions in developing LEAD programs, which now range in the dozens with many more in the exploratory phase.
In July 2016, leaders from Washtenaw County -- including Lisa Gentz, program administrator of millage initiatives for Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH), and Derrick Jackson, director of community engagement at the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office (WCSO) -- met with leaders from King County’s LEAD program.
The experience inspired them to create a roadmap to address racial disparities and over-representation of people with behavioral health conditions in Washtenaw’s criminal justice system, says Gentz.
Gentz, Jackson, and their colleagues returned to Washtenaw County to get started on a LEAD program, which they adjusted to LEADD by adding “Deflection” to the name.
“We did in-depth officer training on managing mental health crises, and we started doing more co-response partnerships between our mobile crisis team and Sheriff’s deputies,” says Gentz. They also researched where supports were needed and held several community conversations.
The opportunity to start the program came when the WCCMH millage passed.
“We knew the millage was going to be a game changer for us. It helped us to identify a clear funding source to get this project up and running,” says Gentz.
In addition to providing sustainable funding, the millage was critical in getting technical support from the LEAD National Support Bureau and a grant from Vital Strategies.
“We leveraged the millage dollars to bring additional grant dollars to the community,” says Jackson. “Part of the reason [Vital Strategies] was willing to fund us was because we have the millage for sustainable funding of LEADD. They didn’t want this to be a start-up where once their money goes away, the program goes away.”
The Washtenaw County LEADD team applied for technical assistance from the LEAD National Support Bureau at the end of 2019, and was selected as one of 13 communities across the U.S. to receive support and training from the bureau.
LEADD began in October 2021 as a pilot program in Ypsilanti Township, selected for its high number of service calls that may be LEADD-eligible. Ypsilanti is also a diverse community, which supports LEADD’s goal of reducing racial disparities.
Jackson says the pilot allows them to slowly ramp up, train staff, and test their systems before expanding to other communities.
LEADD staff and officers received training from the program’s National Support Bureau in October and then began referring individuals, focusing on those who have had frequent contact with law enforcement.
“One of the things that stood out to me during training is that the deputies immediately had a name,” says Jackson. “It was one particular individual–who really struggles with mental health and addiction issues–that lots of officers have interacted with.”
“One of the officers said, ‘Derrick, we’re all worried that one day we’re going to respond and that person’s going to be dead.’
“To hear the officer say ‘the reason we’re giving you this name is because we’re worried about his safety and we’re worried about the community's safety’, to hear that passion from the officers in the room, I think that speaks to where their mindsets are. They want to help the people they're coming in contact with. They just haven’t always had the tools to be able to help effectively,” says Jackson.
LEADD case managers will work in-depth with individuals to “ensure that they get what they need, and eventually help move them towards a willingness to engage in recovery or mental health services,” says Gentz, noting the program has no time limit, and transitions individuals to community services when they are ready.
A key aspect is that? It’s not an abstinence program.
“Some of these folks have had mental illness or drug addiction for a long portion of their life,” says Delphia Simpson, Washtenaw County’s chief public defender and a member of the LEADD policy committee. “It’s not realistic to say they need to stop it today, or by the time probation ends. [Instead], the goal can be harm reduction to the point where they can be productive citizens and they’re not harming themselves or anyone else.”
“It’s about meeting them where they’re at, and recognizing that success looks different for different people,” agrees Gentz. “The hope is that by building a trusting and caring relationship with their case manager and having their basic needs met, they won't need to interface with law enforcement.”
LEADD is trauma-informed, designed to have a low barrier to engagement, and always completely optional.
Washtenaw County has other diversion programs and collaborations between CMH and law enforcement. But there are two key aspects of LEADD that make it unique: it’s a system-wide collaboration between several justice-related agencies, and charges are not filed.
“What makes LEADD so unique and powerful is it’s a collaborative effort between the prosecutor's office, the public defender's office, the sheriff's office and a case management provider,” says Gentz.
“I'm really excited about LEADD because it's a systemic approach,” adds Jackson. “This is the first program that has us all at the table in this capacity. You have each agency putting in money and staff time.” Jackson is excited about “potential positive ripple effects, like systems change work.”
Simpson emphasizes the importance of every agency having a seat at the table while developing the program. “We all want the same thing, but sometimes it looks different from other perspectives. [LEADD] operates on trust between all the members of the criminal justice system, and that has to be built with relationships and conversations.”
As for the experience of the collaboration so far, Gentz says, “it's been fantastic.”
“It's been a pleasure,” Jackson agrees. “Other LEAD cohorts around the country sometimes struggle to convince officers to do this work. It's a tool for the officers, but do they see the value in it? We've been doing work for so long around community engagement and a different way of policing, that that hasn't been challenging for us.”
“We're incredibly lucky to work in this community where we can all sit down at the table and try to figure out a way to reduce harm together,” says Robbins.
The second key to LEADD is that it diverts individuals before they are even charged, while most traditional diversion programs begin after a person has been charged and has entered a plea.
“If someone is homeless or trying to get a new job, having a pending case, a guilty plea entered, or a conviction can hinder their ability to get housing and get a job,” says Robbins. It can also threaten a person’s immigration status.
With LEADD, “We’re not even introducing people into the criminal justice system, but instead connecting them with services,” says Robbins. “Of course, a lot of these individuals will have been through the system before. But in some ways that just shows what doesn’t work for them.”
If the individual engages with the case management team and has an assessment within thirty days, the case will never be charged.
“As an officer, you make contact with someone that you’ve interacted with multiple times in the past for lower level offenses. Someone either in extreme poverty, or who has mental health challenges or substance use disorders,” explains Jackson. The officer can say, “Instead of arrest, there’s a program I can refer you to if you're interested. I don’t have to take you to jail tonight. You don’t get a charge on your record.”
If officers know that an individual they’ve frequently interacted with fits the LEADD criteria, they can also refer them directly.
If the person chooses to participate in LEADD, they meet with a case manager. “The case manager establishes rapport and a relationship. They find out what their needs and goals are, and start to help them walk down that path,” says Jackson.
Because LEADD is a collaboration, staff in every agency work together to support the individual’s success. For example, Robbins, the LEADD prosecutor, will look up other charges that the individual may have on file, and may put cases on hold to give the individual the chance to benefit from the program.
Simpson, a public defender, is hopeful that participation in LEADD could lead to global resolution of an individual’s cases to allow the program to work through. “We have judges in the county that are open to that,” she says. “They just have to understand what LEADD is, and we’re well on our way to talking to them about that.”
Jackson emphasizes that LEADD is a harm reduction model. “It’s not going to be a magic wand. But we know there are things we can do in our community right now to help individuals slowly but surely have better outcomes.”
“I think the challenge for our community is committing to harm reduction and what that really means,” he continues. “Some people are going to be ready for recovery, some people are going to be ready for abstinence. Some people might think they’re ready now and may relapse. Some people’s success might be going to the shelter versus being on the street, or success might be not trespassing on these particular businesses for six months.
“These are complex cases,” Jackson emphasizes. Harm reduction is more than needle exchange programs. It’s important for “us as a community to understand that and to be willing to embrace harm reduction practices that work.”
LEADD will extend across Washtenaw County gradually as the team is built out. Simpson hopes law enforcement agencies will continue to “see it as an opportunity to improve the lives of the people they touch, [while still] protecting the community.”
“Most officers have gone into the profession of police work to help people,” says Jackson. “This is another way to get someone the real help that they need.”
LEADD will also allow the courts to give sentences that are “more compassionate and truly address the needs of the individuals that come before them,” says Simpson.
The effects of LEADD extend beyond the individual to the community as a whole.
“Connecting people to services in a meaningful way can prevent future crime,” says Robbins. “Not just additional misdemeanors, but violent crime as well.
“My hope is that LEADD helps to eliminate low-level crimes by addressing the root causes that led to the criminal behavior: mental health and substance abuse issues and poverty,” Robbins continues.
“We already know that we can’t arrest ourselves out of these problems,” Jackson agrees.
In addition to improving public safety, LEADD can reduce community expenses. “A lot of the folks cycling through our jail system are also cycling through the emergency room, and both of those systems cost a lot of money,” says Jackson.
Most importantly, LEADD can be life-changing for participants.
“I am really excited about this program,” Robbins says. “LEADD is an impressive model that has the potential to change a lot of lives.”
Story by Cleoniki Kesidis