Seattle's Innovative Drug Enforcement Program Paying Big Dividends

By McCarton Ackerman 04/16/15

Despite controversy surrounding its inception, Seattle's LEAD program appears to be working.

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Seattle made headlines in 2011 for launching an experimental and somewhat controversial drug enforcement program, but new findings are showing that four years later, the risk has paid big dividends in reducing recidivism.

Researchers at the University of Washington followed 203 participants in the city’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD) for anywhere from six months to three years. The program was originally limited to the Belltown neighborhood, which was ravaged by drug-related crime. Although police had attempted to address the problems there, it did little because a dealer who was arrested was usually back on the street within a matter of days.

The participants had been arrested by police on various drug charges, but were given the option to forgo jail time and prosecution in exchange for promising to take part in a special social service program, as well as meet with a social worker twice in the first month of signing up for LEAD. They received access to housing assistance, health care, counseling, and school tuition, in addition to having the arrest wiped from their record.

This sounds too good to be true for someone who would have ordinarily faced having a criminal record, but it appears LEAD participants are determined to make the most of their second chance. After the scientists compared the LEAD participants with a control group of 115 people who were arrested and prosecuted in a traditional manner, they found the LEAD members were up to 58% less likely to commit new crimes since their arrest than the control group.

Statistics published by the Seattle Police Department also showed that from 2011 to 2013, overall drug abuse violations fell from 1,475 to 1,274.

Findings like this are a large reason why Seattle’s LEAD program has received more than $5 million in funding from the city and private foundations. The city of Santa Fe, N.M., has since adopted its own version of LEAD and the capital city of Albany, N.Y., is expected to do the same later this year.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.