Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city’s Human Services Department have proposed a partial-funding plan for the Public Defender Association’s Law Enforcement Diversion Program, an arrest-diversion program for people involved in low-level criminal activity that has been replicated in cities across the country. However, the mayor’s plan would only pay to reduce case managers’ existing caseloads, and to eliminate an existing backlog of people referred to the program through “social contacts”—a lower priority for LEAD than new referrals made through arrest diversion, which the PDA considers the heart of the program.
In an email to council members on Monday, Durkan’s homelessness advisor, Tess Colby, outlined what she called a two-phase plan for funding LEAD in 2020. (As I reported earlier this month, the city budget included $3.5 million in new funding for LEAD to reduce caseloads and expand into new parts of the city, but that funding is now on hold pending a study by a consultant.)
The first phase, according to Colby, would include “the costs and timing associated with the ramp-up of staff to reach an appropriate case management ratio that addresses their current client base (roughly 700 persons) and backlog (roughly 300 persons) of clients.”
The second phase would come after the consultant review, which is supposed to wrap up sometime this spring. The consultants are tasked with assessing “LEAD’s approach to diversion and case management in light of its theory of change and national best practices” and coming up with “LEAD-appropriate performance measures,” according to Colby’s letter.
PDA director Lisa Daugaard, who won a MacArthur “genius” Grant last year for her work on LEAD, says the program’s model “breaks” if only existing caseloads and the backlog of social-contact referrals are funded. “LEAD by definition entails responding to new arrest diversions and priority referrals from local businesses,” Daugaard says. “If we don’t help respond to current problems, we’re not an alternative public safety and order strategy—we’re just a case management program for people who, in the past, committed crimes.”
Council member Lisa Herbold echoed Daugaard’s comments at a meeting of her public safety committee on Tuesday, calling LEAD a “public safety program that exists to prioritize responding to emerging public safety and disorder issues that are identified by the communities where we live and work.” Herbold said the mayor’s proposed funding plan “makes it impossible for LEAD to take high-priority arrest referrals, and they cannot operate as a program without being able to” do so.
All four public safety committee members signed on to a letter to Durkan on Tuesday. The letter, written by Herbold, asks the mayor to commit to fully funding LEAD this year; to release the $3.5 million the council has already approved by March 1, with the concession that the contract can be modified after the consultants come back with their report; and to affirm that LEAD is a public safety program, not a homelessness program.
This last point may sound like a small nit to pick, but it gets to the heart of the issue that has led Durkan to hire a consultant to look at LEAD’s approach. LEAD has long been classified as a homelessness intervention and required to meet the same sort of performance metrics as shelters and day centers, such as referring at least 60 percent of all clients to emergency shelters. (LEAD estimates that 70 percent of its clients are unhoused). The PDA has argued that these metrics are not the right ones for for a program designed to improve public safety by reducing crime, and have suggested their own metrics in the past, but the city has continued to treat LEAD as a homelessness program.
Through a spokeswoman, Durkan’s office said the mayor “believes LEAD provides a valuable service to some individuals who have been cycling through our justice system” and “looks forward to continued discussion with LEAD, as Bennett Midland [the consultant] helps us to determine the performance measures that will help us assess the impact of the program on both the individuals they serve and surrounding communities.”