LEAD Program Aims to Stop ‘Revolving Door’ for Minor Offenders

Denver will start steering people toward support services instead of jail

A lady in a brown dress standing behind a podium speaking
Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson speaks at the Tuesday press conference, where city officials announced the launch of the LEAD program at the Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Branch Library in Denver.

Denver officials announced Tuesday the launch of a pilot program that would allow local law enforcement to send minor offenders to support service providers instead of jail.

The Denver District Attorney’s Office, the Denver City Attorney’s Office and the Denver Police Department are collaborating to implement the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program. Under the LEAD program, law enforcement agencies refer certain people to get help with housing, mental health and addiction as an alternative to incarceration. The program’s goal is to reduce recidivism rates, and, as a result, save taxpayers money by reducing the number of lengthy jail stays for people who commit minor offenses.

Denver is one of four Colorado jurisdictions — including Alamosa, Longmont and Pueblo — that received grant funds to pilot the LEAD program.

“Too often, folks with mental health issues, victims of trauma, folks with addiction issues, find themselves in a revolving door of arrest, incarceration and release,” said Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson at a press conference. “And yet we never seem to address the underlying issues of what led them to be arrested and incarcerated to begin with.” 

She said jailing people for low-level offenses when they suffer from mental health issues is “totally ineffective” and “does not promote public safety.”

“It is our belief that when individuals are offered immediate support, instead of immediate incarceration, their likelihood of reoffending goes down,” Bronson said.

The City of Seattle launched the first LEAD program in 2011. Participants in that program were 58 percent less likely to be arrested compared to people who were booked and prosecuted “as normal” through the criminal justice system, according to the LEAD National Support Bureau.

Colorado’s quartet of LEAD jurisdictions joins 30 cities and counties across the U.S. that have implemented similar diversion programs. Six cities, including Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon, have programs certified by the LEAD National Support Bureau.

Denver’s LEAD program will have the DPD, Denver DA’s office, and Denver City Attorney’s Office partnering with support service providers in the city to help divert charges for people who might otherwise be prosecuted for drug possession and prostitution. 

Instead of arresting them or issuing a citation for a minor offense, LEAD-trained Denver police officers can offer the alternative of undergoing behavioral health treatment or other support services through a support organization. 

People can decline those services, however, and go through the normal booking process. Officers can also offer services to someone they’ve identified as needing them, even if a crime hasn’t been committed, making what’s called a “social referral” to the LEAD program.

LEAD program participants would be referred to one of two Denver-based service providers, where they might receive housing, job training, addiction or mental health treatment, and they are assigned a case manager through that organization. People with substance abuse issues would immediately receive treatment through Addiction Research and Treatment Services, or ARTS. Women diverted for sex work, for example, would be sent to the Empowerment Program, which provides services specifically to women.

If someone who participates in LEAD commits another offense while in the program, they won’t necessarily be barred from using its services again.

“LEAD is really based in harm reduction, and part of that is understanding that re-offenses are going to happen,” said Kevin Kelly, LEAD program administrator with the Denver Office of Behavioral Health Strategies. He added that while hopefully the recidivism rate is minimized, the city and state agencies are taking a “realistic” approach to the program.

The program is made possible through a $2.3 million annual grant from the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund. The Colorado Department of Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health is running four pilot programs in the state, and each one including Denver’s will receive over $560,000 annually. 

As it is a pilot program, an independent evaluation team will assess the recidivism rates of LEAD participants and its impact on drug use to help determine whether the program should continue. Denver’s program, which will run through the end of June 2020, has a target of 100 participants for its first year, Kelly said.

Denver’s police department, DA’s and city attorney’s offices have for years discussed plans to bring the LEAD program to the city. Denver sent a large group of officials from several agencies, including the DPD and McCann’s and Bronson’s offices, to Seattle to observe the LEAD program, Bronson said.

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said one of the things that “struck” her when she first became Denver’s DA was how much crime rates were driven by drug addiction. “It’s really overwhelming when I look at our statistics of the cases we file” as well as the city attorney’s filings, she said. “Police officers can’t just keep arresting the same people, seeing the effects of that drug addiction, over and over.”

Denver has implemented other diversion programs, but they have generally required a case to be filed. McCann says her office started a program in which young adults can be diverted before any filing, but the person may still have been arrested. 

That’s different from the LEAD program, McCann said, in which a police officer can make the diversion decision “on the street” before ever involving hers or the city attorney’s office.

“This is something that we have wanted in the police department for a long time,” said Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen. He added that DPD officers can use the program “to help people instead of just locking people up,” and it can help his department focus its resources on more serious crimes. Denver Police Department districts 1, 2 and 6 will implement the LEAD program.

In recent months, Denver has been involved in different alternative criminal justice initiatives, including a new expungement program for low-level marijuana offenses and a project to expand restorative justice practices in Colorado. 

Pazen was asked at the press conference what his response was to the view that the LEAD program is another “soft” approach to crime. He said that jailing people for nonviolent crimes when they have an addiction “is a temporary fix, it’s a Band-Aid approach,” and it can disrupt whatever support system they have in terms of housing, employment and family, leading potentially to more crime. “So by no means is this soft on crime at all. This is a public health issue.”

McCann said that getting people help up front before incarceration “is really powerful.” She recalled that during her Seattle visit, she talked to a woman in the city’s LEAD program who had a daughter but was suffering from a heroin addiction. “The thing that motivated her was getting in a place where she could be stable enough to have her daughter come back and live with her,” McCann said.

“When that person says, I’m ready,” McCann said, “we need to be there and help them make that change.”

— Doug Chartier

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