Photo of Seattle, courtesy of Wikimedia

ITHACA, N.Y. — Police officers get more time to investigate major crimes. Arrest totals fall. Recidivism rates among the chronically homeless plummet by close to 60 percent.

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And a city’s mostly poor, low-level offenders — those who struggle most with cycles of crime and poverty — get a shot at a new life.

Sound too good to be true? Maybe. But those are the early results of a new policy implemented in Seattle — one that, after being embraced by President Barack Obama, may soon be coming to Ithaca’s streets as well.

Mayor Svante Myrick has formed a municipal drug task force to draft a “desperately needed” new approach to fighting local drug abuse.

Seattle’s highly-touted new plan, the mayor says, will have a role in the committee’s recommendations, which are expected to be released soon.

“This is going to be one of the pillars of our new policy,” Myrick said.

Below is a 5-part series on the Seattle model — and how it might be brought to Ithaca.

Click on the part of the story you’re interested in to learn more; if you have additional questions, email me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.

1 – How does LEAD work in Seattle?
2 – Ithaca officials gauge new model
3 – ‘The entire community got together’
4 – The need in Ithaca
5 – One man’s story 

1 – How the LEAD program works in Seattle

Here’s how it works in Seattle: Police officers in the city’s west precinct are given the opportunity to directly funnel specific kinds of low-level offenders into the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program.

That means that rather than being arrested, booked and sent to jail, these people are instead given help — a hot meal, clothing, a place to sleep.

Only people who were carrying less than 3 grams of drugs, have no felony convictions for serious violent crimes or select other crimes, and aren’t involved in promoting prostitution or the exploitation of minors are eligible, according to The Seattle Times.

Photo of Seattle, courtesy of Wikimedia

The participants can avoid criminal charges and an arrest record as long as they fulfill their commitments under the program, which places them in services for drug treatment, stable housing and job training, The Seattle Times reported. The criminal charges can be revived at any time and are suspended solely pending the participation of the suspects in LEAD.

First implemented in 2011, the LEAD program was the subject of an approving, statistically controlled evaluation by the University of Washington. The White House has organized an event for 30 municipalities interested in learning about LEAD to be held in July.

The reason, according to the program’s backers, is clear: It is “producing significant results by interrupting the cycle of arrest, prosecution and incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders,” The Seattle Times says.

2 – Ithaca officials gauge new model

In January, two Ithaca officials flew to Seattle to see the program firsthand. (Their trip was paid for by various foundations and coordinated by the Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit.) The Ithaca representatives went with officials from New York City and Albany, which is also looking to adopt the program.

What stuck out to Lillian Fan, of the Southern Tier Aids Program’s Syringe Exchange and a co-chair of Myrick’s task force, was how many of the LEAD program participants were involved in getting services. (The other person who went from Ithaca on the trip was Travis Brooks, program administrator at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center.)

Organizing photo for the Drug Policy Alliance, a NYC organization that paid for two Ithaca officials to learn about Seattle’s LEAD program.
Organizing photo for the Drug Policy Alliance, a NYC organization that paid for two Ithaca officials to learn about Seattle’s LEAD program.

“Their full caseload was 230 clients,” Fan says in an interview this week. “And 217 were actively engaged, which is just an astronomical number.”

One of the biggest benefits about the structure of LEAD, Fan said, was that “it’s pre-arrest, so they’re not formally booked.”

That gives participants a clear incentive to enter the program. That stick is coupled with the carrot of smoother, more direct access to social services.

See related: LEAD program for low-level drug criminals sees success

“Their recidivism rates just dropped, incredibly so,” Fan says of the Seattle program. “It shows that people want help; they want these services — you have to give them an avenue to get them. I think this certainly has the potential to do that.”

The national press has also taken notice. A report in The Daily Beast praised the program, as have stories in The Huffington Post, Vice News and The Washington Post.

“All in all the opportunity that this gave participants was amazing,” said Brooks, of Ithaca’s GIAC.

“It has a lot to do with frequent fliers, mental health, low-level crimes — people just bogged down in the system.”

3 – “The entire community got together”

Fan and Brooks went to a meeting in Seattle unlike anything, they said, either had seen locally.

It was a room filled with a diverse cross-section of Seattle’s civic officials — from police officers, to prosecutors, to mental health counselors, to the public defender’s office, and more.

The group, which meets every other week, took turns discussing the individual participants in the LEAD program. Police officers then also suggested possible candidates for the program.

Then the different officials exchanged stories about which participants were honoring their obligations, and who wasn’t, and the problems of individual low-level offenders.

“This entire community got together to keep an eye on these folks,” Fan says. “It’s an entire community paying attention to particular people that they want to make sure succeed.”

4 – The need in Ithaca

A relatively small number of people in Ithaca use an inordinate proportion of its social services and overwhelm the local courts.

“They keep churning through the system, often without any progress,” says Bill Rusen, executive director of the Ithaca-based Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services. “There’s this revolving door for a sizable number of people right now that enter the legal system over and over and over again and are exhausting it.”

In assembling the municipal drug task force, Mayor Myrick pointed to a rise in overdose deaths in Ithaca. He also suggested that a jump in property crime was tied to the drug problem.

“A new direction for drug policy in Ithaca is desperately needed,” Myrick said. “It is my plan in 2015 to set that new direction.”

This fall, Ithaca police sounded the alarm after two deaths — and three serious incidents — were linked to heroin overdoses. At a recent session of the Citizens’ Police Academy, Ithaca police Inv. Kevin McKenna — who specializes in narcotics — said heroin creates more problems for local police than any other drug.

Heroin and opiate addiction in the Ithaca area rose 35 percent from 2007 to 2012 at CARS, according to Rusen’s statistics. That’s led to an increase in hospitalizations, imprisonments and “criminal justice involvement” for what are mostly drug users, according to the CARS data.

Data from CARS shows a 35 percent increase in local heroin use in 5 years.

One problem that afflicts Ithaca — as well as similar cities — is the long wait-times for those seeking certain forms of treatment, according to Rusen.

Those lookin gfor drug and alcohol treatment, Rusen notes, are 20 percent less likely to come in if they have to wait an additoinal day. If they have to wait two days, the likelihood that they visit decreases by yet another 20 percent.

“We have to be a better job with withdrawal services, especially for heroin,” Rusen says. “… A kid who is 19, 20 years old is sick of being addicted because it sucks….”

“Your answer to that kid can be, ‘I can send you to Syracuse Behavioral Health, but they have a 2-week waiting list so we’ll do the best we can.’ So we have to do better.”

5 – One man’s story

A man from somewhere in the midwest, a skilled worker, had fallen on hard times.

The man had become addicted to drugs and alcohol abuse. He became homeless for a period and ended up in Seattle. Then he was arrested — and decided to join Seattle’s LEAD program.

When he met Ithaca’s Travis Brooks, the man had been sober for somewhere in the range of 100 days. He was living in his own place again and was working toward his goal of returning to the midwest.

The LEAD program itself did not create the programs that helped the man get his life back together, Brooks said. But without it, the man would have likely been sent to jail and unable to connect with the social services that he desperately needed.

Brooks at a meeting in February. (Ryan Landvater/Ithaca Voice)

“LEAD is a clearing house for a ton of programs,” Brooks said. “It’s not another program that’s going to duplicate services: it’s a program that’s going to connect people to those services.”

Those links can make a huge difference for someone who would otherwise be facing time behind bars, Brooks said.

“Some people don’t necessarily need to be incarcerated for six months — they just need some direction, they need some help,” Brooks said.

“For someone to point them in the right direction … It changes a lot.”


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.