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Originally published Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 9:03 PM

Jerry Large

Drug program a good alternative to lockup

Some smart people in King County are experimenting with breaking old, ineffective strategies in search of solutions to drug-related crime. They've started a program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD).

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes This is a good way to start the process of ending drug prohibition. Now, if we could... Read more
quotes I've seen individuals arrested in Seattle for drug related crimes and repeatedly... Read more
quotes It's worth a shot. I would be interested to see our follow-through and follow-up on this. Read more

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Some smart people in King County are experimenting with breaking old, ineffective strategies in search of solutions to drug-related crime.

They've started a program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). Instead of arresting the same people over and over for drug dealing, drug use and drug-related prostitution, LEAD will try to get low-level offenders off that merry-go-round and save us all some trouble and money.

Go fish last Thursday's paper out of the recycle bin or go to the Web and read the story by crime team reporter Sara Jean Green (seati.ms/q0htKf). The details are all there, I just want to praise the idea.

Prosecutors, police, public defenders, the ACLU, neighborhood and business associations, and government have united to create LEAD because they agree that what we've been doing doesn't work.

Green quoted Seattle Police Department spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb: "Officers are frustrated arresting the same people over and over again. We know it's not working."

Under the pilot program, police will be able to offer a few people an alternative to being arrested. It's especially important that alternatives will be tailored to the individual. It could be drug treatment, education, help getting housing. Having another way to make money helps, too — you know, a job.

Most people know by now that poverty, homelessness, a lack of education can all nudge some people toward selling or using drugs.

Addressing the underlying causes and breaking the cycle would be a lot cheaper than repeated arrest, prosecution and imprisonment.

Of course, most poor people aren't part of that cycle and plenty of people with more money use drugs, though they tend not to wind up in jail.

Lisa Daugaard, Defender Association deputy director, told Green that LEAD will try to give more young people the same opportunity to change their paths as is available to middle-class kids whose parents have the resources to help get them off drugs.

The Defender Association, which has an intimate view of the lives of people arrested and prosecuted for drug-related crimes, made this new approach happen.

Defenders saw the huge racial disparities, and they recognized the many factors that lead people to crime and keep them at it even in the face of strict enforcement.

The new program will fight crime by helping people get off the track they are on.

LEAD is the first program of its kind in the nation, but the realization that enforcement alone is not the answer is reflected in the growth of other groups as well.

That's why so many law-enforcement officials around the country are members of "Fight Crime: Invest in Kids." The nonprofit is nonpartisan and evidence-based. And what the evidence shows is that giving kids a good start in life cuts crime and saves tax dollars.

We are piecing things together, bit by bit, and starting to ask the right kinds of questions. What is our ultimate goal and what is the least painful, most efficient way to get there?

If our goal is punishment, we can keep locking people up. If our goal is a safer community and more productive citizens, then we have to do some things differently. We may even eventually come to see drug abuse as a health problem rather than a criminal matter.

LEAD is just a start, a worthwhile step away from a rut that has led us to bulging prisons, a mistrust of police and an endless stream of lost lives.

The leaders of this new effort have acknowledged from the outset that this strategy won't work for everyone, and that the particulars will have to be tweaked as they go along. After all, they're smart enough not to stick with anything that's not working.

There's a quotation from Winston Churchill that I keep coming across lately: "Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing ... after they have exhausted all other possibilities."

Maybe someday that won't be true, but at least on one significant issue, we are moving finally toward the right thing.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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