Non-Jail Program For Low-Level Offenders Pitched In The Hill

New Haven Independent

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.”

Jeannia Fu, a graduate student at Yale’s School of Public Health and an advocate for the Sex Workers Allies Network (SWAN), expressed concern that New Haven’s longstanding problems with establishing an effective Civilian Review Board (CRB) pointed towards a police department that may be reluctant to participate in a program that required such open scrutiny of daily police decisions.

Jane Mills of People Against Injustice (PAI) countered that court records on arrests are actually quite accessible and thorough. She agreed that New Haven city government and law enforcement must achieve new levels of openness if something like LEAD were to work here.

“In New England, transparency is a tough thing,” said Mills, who has been on the city’s planning committee for LEAD for the past few months. “For this to work well, New Haven has got to get radically transparent about what they’re doing.”

Mills argued that PAI would work hard to get detailed information about the city’s exploration of LEAD out to the public. Brown agreed, saying that every implementation of LEAD had to be a collaborative affair that was owned by multiple stakeholders, not just the city or the police. He said that communities have to demand access to police data, and have to be involved in shaping the program’s eligibility criteria, if the program had any chance of succeeding in a city.

Hill resident Hector Miranda had a related message for Brown: Come back to this meeting, and come back often.

“We expect you guys to come back so that we can talk about how this is going to work,” he said. “Every second Tuesday of the month, when this management team meets.”

Caprice Taylor Mendez, a program manager at The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, traveled to Seattle earlier in the year and who had helped organize Brown’s presentation at the management team meeting on Tuesday night. She called this presentation a first step towards bringing a harm reduction model of policing to New Haven. The next, critical steps would require constant, dedicated community collaboration.

“There’s zero funding for this program right now, and we’ve been exploring it to date on a shoestring,” she said. “The Community Foundation is happy to provide some seed dollars to Cornell Scott Hill Health Center to have a part-time staffer who can start putting all these pieces together” and help facilitate communication between the community, law enforcement, the city, and various other local social service organizations.

Mendez said that the Community Foundation, the Katal Center, and other relevant stakeholders will make a similar presentation on the principles and possibilities of LEAD on May 17 at Betsy Ross School during the Hill South Community Management Team’s monthly meeting.

Then, on June 21 at 6 p.m. at Betsy Ross, these groups plan to hold a larger, participatory conversation about LEAD in which interested members of the community can share their thoughts on the program, and help determine the shape and details of how a New Haven LEAD program would look and work.

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