The police get a call from Walmart that somebody has been caught shoplifting. The officers run the offender’s criminal history, and quickly find out that he has a 40-page rap sheet. Not 40 arrests; 40 pages.
Will one more arrest put this guy on the straight and narrow? Or is there another route, away from prison and toward social services, that would better change behavior, reduce recidivism, protect the community, and save the taxpayers money?
This was the central question under discussion Tuesday night during the Hill North Community Management Team’s monthly meeting at Career High School.
The majority of the hour-and-a-half-long meeting was dedicated to a presentation by Keith Brown, director of health and harm reduction at the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice.
Brown runs a year-old program in Albany, N.Y., called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), which encourages police officers to redirect low-level offenders engaged in drug abuse, prostitution, and other non-violent street crimes toward a caseworker.
Instead of making an arrest, the police collaborate with the caseworker to help the offender navigate access to a variety of social services, from housing to mental healthcare to substance abuse treatment, that help stabilize his life, change his behavior, and make the community that much safer.
Now the Harp administration is looking to bring LEAD to New Haven. Tuesday night’s event was part of the plan to broach the idea with the community.
Earlier this year, the city called on Brown to help organize an 11-person trip to Seattle, where a diverse group of New Haveners got to take a look at how the LEAD program works in the city in which it was originally developed in 2011.
On Tuesday night, Brown returned to New Haven to share anecdotes, takeaways, and key principles from his own city’s implementation of LEAD, with a focus on explaining both how the program works in general, and how the program might work in New Haven in particular.
He started by telling the story of the Walmart shoplifter, who was the first person ever diverted by Albany’s LEAD program.
“The first person we got in our project illustrates exactly what’s wrong with the way the current system functions,” he told the room.
After the police scanned through his 40-page rap sheet, they learned that the man had a 30-bag-per-day heroin habit. He had to hustle together $300-400 every day just to avoid the debilitating sickness of withdrawal.
Instead of making yet another arrest, the Albany police, who had been trained in LEAD’s harm reduction principles, called the program’s designated caseworker, who was eventually able to get the offender stable housing, an ID, medical care, and access to a methadone clinic. One year later, the initial offender had had zero new arrests.
“Law enforcement often have a binary choice: to arrest a person or not to arrest a person,” Brown explained. LEAD offers a third route: diversion, away from prisons and towards the social mechanisms that are much more qualified to help with issues of mental healthcare and substance abuse.
“LEAD acknowledges that behavior change takes time and that oftentimes people relapse or still engage in the same behaviors before they ultimately get better,” he continued. “It’s a pre-arrest diversion program, which means that if you engage with a case manager, you do not end up with a criminal record. In Albany, all we require is that participants complete an assessment with their caseworker within 30 days. That’s how we define engagement with the process. It’s not about somebody deciding on an arbitrary outcome that they want you to do. It’s about engaging with the process of behavior change.”
Fifty-two people have gone through the Albany program since it started last year, and the city just recently added a second caseworker. The program is currently paid for by New York Department of Health harm reduction funding and by Medicaid Redesign money that is funneled to the local hospital system.
Could LEAD Work in New Haven?
Although LEAD programs in Seattle and Albany share the same principles and diversionary flows, Brown explained, each instance of the program is contingent on the scope and quality of community participation.
In Albany, the community worked with the police from the outset to ensure that a community leadership team would have access to law enforcement data on who had been diverted, who had been arrested and not diverted, and why the police had made the decisions that they did. All of this data could also be broken down by demographics.
“In Albany, African Americans make up 38 percent of the population but 68 percent of drug offenses,” Brown said. “The community demanded of LEAD: whatever you do, you should be making this better, not making this worse or keeping this the same.”