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New Haven Independent

Eleven New Haven officials and activists flew to Seattle to seek an effective alternative to locking up street hookers and nonviolent drug abusers.

They come home convinced they found it.

At least three of the mission’s members said they did. Now they plan to bring the idea to downtown and the Hill to see if people in town agree.

The delegation spent last Tuesday and Wednesday visiting with Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program.

Under the LEAD program, cops work with community agencies to bring in low-level prostitutes and drug abusers and instead of arresting them, offer them help finding “housing, health care, job training, drug treatment, and mental health support.” After studies showed that LEAD led to a drop in recidivism, other cities replicated the program.

New Haven’s human resources chief, Martha Okafor, first heard about LEAD while attending a White House conference on police reform. Then, after public criticism of a police prostitution sting, Mayor Toni Harp directed her administration to explore an alternative approach that could help streetwalkers straighten out their lives rather than sink into more trouble in the criminal justice system.

Okafor put together and led the 11-member delegation on last week’s Seattle trip. The delegation included, among others, Assistant Police Chiefs Otoniel Reyes and Archie Generoso, state prosecutor David Strollo, community activists, and representatives of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS).

They watched how a team of cops, social workers, prosecutors, and others worked together in Seattle to keep people out of the courts and in programs to help them, all with the understanding that if they stray off the path they will face criminal charges. Prosecutors agreed to cut people slack if, as often happens, addicts sometimes fall off the wagon and get in trouble again — but agree to stick with the program.

Cops give people the choice of either entering the program or getting arrested the first time they get in trouble. Then they get evaluated by the program and continually monitored to ensure they’re pursuing treatment or training or work and housing.

It’s part of what’s commonly known as a “harm reduction” approach to dealing with people who get in trouble with the law because of drug addiction. Connecticut has some diversionary programs like this for people who are already arrested. LEAD is different because it diverts people from the court system before they face charges and rack up fines and jail time. It is similar in spirit to part of New Haven’s Project Longevity program offering gang-bangers one last chance to straighten out their lives.

“It really was powerful,” reported Nathan Jones, a Hill Health Center board member who participated in the trip. “‘I’ve never experienced anything like it before. I hope it’s something we can bring to our community.”

He and another member of the delegation, criminal justice reform advocate Shelton Tucker, cited a moment in a LEAD team meeting they observed when it was announced that after six years, a former heroin and methamphetamine addict had found stable housing and a steady job. He’d gotten his old driver’s license back and completed the program. The man had suffered relapses along the way, but he stuck with LEAD, and LEAD stuck with him.

Jones said he was moved “to hear the applause of the officers and prosecutors for his success compared to where he started off.”

“It was inspiring to see people care about people in need. It’s so compassionate and so humane,” Tucker said. “Something like this in New Haven is drastically needed.”

Okafor agreed. She said the Harp administration is preparing a grant application to fund a citywide version of LEAD. In the meantime, it plans to hold community meetings in two parts of town with many street-level drug abusers — downtown and the Hill — to describe LEAD and see if people want to create pilot versions of the program in their neighborhoods. She said she hopes community management teams and alders will participate in the discussions.

“Based on Seattle’s experience, almost 60 percent of people who were diverted to LEAD were less likely to commit a crime and get arrested compared to every other group,” Okafor said. “It had actually led to recovery. It’s a win-win.”

The Community Foundation, DMHAS and the Katal Center for Health, Justice and Equity have been working with the city on developing the program, including paying for some of the travel expenses last week to Seattle.

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