Portland considers following Seattle's 'LEAD' in fighting crime, drugs

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PORTLAND — The chairman of the City Council Public Safety, Health & Human Services Committee Monday said he is interested in adopting a Seattle program designed to deter drug-related nonviolent crimes and prostitution.

“It was very compelling,” Council Ed Suslovic said about a Thursday, Jan. 15, presentation to a subcommittee on substance abuse established by Mayor Michael Brennan.

Kris Nyrop, who works with public defenders in Seattle and surrounding King County, told the panel that Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, is expanding throughout Seattle, a city of about 650,000. It’s aim is to get low-level offenders into stable housing and treatment programs.

Designed first as a way to fight crime, the program offers people facing nonviolent charges and with nonviolent prior records a chance to join LEAD and be immediately assigned to a case manager.

“We were looking at a whole bunch of people who were looking at a minimum of five years in jail,” Nyrop said, adding that the average annual individual cost of incarceration is $30,000.

The intake process is intensive, and in the program’s first year in 2011, Nyrop said, 55 percent of the $950,000 in funding (all from private grants) went to providing shelter.

LEAD is now publicly funded by Seattle at a cost of $800,000 annually. Program leaders are waiting for hard data from a University of Washington study on the cost effectiveness of LEAD, but preliminary data presented by Nyrop shows more than 250 people have enrolled; 86 percent were homeless and 49 percent were between the ages of 41 and 59.

“It’s a population that has been chronically addicted for a longtime,” Nyrop said.

Early data on recidivism is being reviewed again because it seems too good to be true, he added, with total arrests down by 16 percent and felony arrests down perhaps as much as 25 percent.

Full expansion of LEAD could cost as much as $5 million annually in Seattle and King County, but costs associated with mental health and chemical dependency treatment can be paid for with federal funding through the Affordable Care Act, Nyrop said.

Housing remains a challenge, he added, because landlords can be reluctant to provide housing even with the assurance the tenants are receiving care and monitoring.

“We have a limited amount of landlords who are willing to take that bait,” Nyrop said.

So far, 55 percent of LEAD clients have received chemical dependency treatment, 49 percent have received mental health treatment, and 54 percent needed help just getting basic identification, Nyrop said.

Referrals to LEAD are most often made by police when someone could be charged, or during meetings with officials from the program, courts and law enforcement.

“They are really astute at knowing who is out there,” Nyrop said.

Referrals get a 30-day window to sign on or face charges, and are not expelled immediately because of a relapse or even imprisonment on new charges. Some LEAD members have left the program and moved on with their lives; others are expected to need long term help because of mental health issues.

Suslovic was enthusiastic. He said he would like to see an encompassing effort to attack substance abuse in the city, and liked the second chances given to people and the work to get them stable housing.

The city has been moving forward on providing stable housing, and addiction and mental health services to the chronically homeless through programs at Avesta Housing and Community Housing of Maine. Former City Manager Mark Rees made stable housing a priority in his three-year tenure.

The substance abuse subcommittee began meeting last summer and has also heard from Michael Botticelli, acting director of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, on how the federal government would like to shift the emphasis on substance abuse from law enforcement to public health.

Subcommittee members include state Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce, Chris Corson, who oversees the city Overdose Prevention Project, Robert Fowler of the Milestone Foundation, and David Faulkner of Day One.

While not an attorney, Nyrop said he was involved in lawsuits against Seattle police because of the racial disparity in arrests, especially for drug offenses. LEAD was developed almost out of frustration as the plaintiffs won cases, but could not adequately suggest ways for police to do better.

Nyrop said police, prosecutors from Seattle and King County, social service agencies and the American Civil Liberties Union got together to find a solution.

The LEAD program has also been adopted in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and discussed in other cities including Baltimore. Suslovic said the city might have to seek grants to start anything, even just hiring one case manager.

“We have to do this with the idea of using existing resources,” he said. “But if the the subcommittee accomplishes one thing, it could be this.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.