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how the city of albany is advancing smart criminal justice reform

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Yesterday marked the launch of Albany’s innovative Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, making New York’s capital city the first jurisdiction on the East Coast, and only the third in the nation, to launch LEAD. Albany’s reform approach highlights the growing role cities are playing in the growing national movement to end mass incarceration and the failed war on drugs.

LEAD is a harm-reduction oriented program to reduce low-level arrests and recidivism. In LEAD, instead of making an arrest, police officers exercise their discretion to divert individuals for certain criminal offenses (including low-level drug charges) directly to a case manager, who then facilitates access to a comprehensive network of services. Rather than entering the maze of the criminal justice system, the individual receives intensive, harm reduction-oriented case management and targeted social services, with greater coordination among systems of care.

LEAD was first launched in Seattle in 2011. An independent evaluation found a 58% reduction in recidivism among people in the Seattle program, compared to people going through the criminal justice system as usual.

Since its launch in Seattle, dozens of communities around the country have expressed interest in LEAD. Albany’s work on LEAD began in early 2014. For over two years, local stakeholders — including community advocates, police, city and county officials, business leaders, health workers, treatment providers, and more — worked together to design and plan the program.

LEAD stands to make a significant impact in Albany. Historically, a relatively small number of individuals in Albany with high needs demand a great deal of police time and resources. They cycle in and out of jail or prisons without treatment of their underlying issues, such as mental illness and substance use problems, homelessness, unemployment, and inadequate medical care. This population also tends to be high utilizers of the hospital emergency room, which is costly and is not designed to provide preventative or regular health care. LEAD focuses on addressing some of those underlying problems and stopping the cycle of costly and ineffective arrests and incarceration.

In a national first, Medicaid related funding will support LEAD. Albany Medical Center – a major healthcare provider – will invest funds related to the redesign of New York’s Medicaid system to support LEAD’s case management function. The link with Medicaid represents an important, tangible step to changing how society addresses drug and mental health related problems – moving from a criminal justice based approach to a health-based approach.

While the launch of LEAD in Albany is in itself impressive, what makes it special is the extraordinary cross-sector coordination among stakeholders that often work within silos — and the promise such collaboration holds for advancing substantive reform.

The Policy Coordinating Group – which planned the program – included the Albany Police Department; Albany Mayor’s Office; Center for Law and Justice; Albany County Sheriff; Albany County District Attorney’s Office; Central Avenue Business Improvement District; Albany County Executive and Departments, including the Albany County Public Defender’s Office, Department of Health, Department of Mental Health, Department of Probation; the Drug Policy Alliance; the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice (where I serve as co-director); and the LEAD National Support Bureau.

Foundations and businesses came together to back the project: the New York State Health Foundation supported the LEAD planning process and encouraged efforts to leverage opportunities around Medicaid in New York State. The Touhey Family Foundation provided essential support to build local staffing capacity for the program. And in addition to Albany Medical Center’s support for case management, other organizations continue to make contributions to the program: the Capital District Transportation Authority, Stewart’s Shops, Homeless and Travelers Aid Society, and the City Mission of Albany have provided bus passes, gift cards, care packages, and more, so that police officers and case managers can best meet participants’ immediate needs.

And, critically, the Albany LEAD Community Leadership Team, a group of neighborhood residents, human service providers, members of the clergy, and advocacy organizations, formed to educate the community about LEAD. The group creates a critical mechanism for ongoing communication between the community and program actors.

It’s precisely because of these unique collaborations and leadership that in July of 2015, Albany’s LEAD planning work was recognized at a national LEAD convening held at the White House.

For nearly 50 years, we’ve been stuck with the failed war on drugs, which has fed unprecedented mass incarceration, harmed police-community relations, led to gross racial disparities, and diminished both public safety and public health. While reform may be stuck in Congress and state legislatures, cities like Albany are taking action: LEAD is a prime example of how municipalities are adopting a public health approach and demonstrating real leadership. While LEAD isn’t a silver bullet, it is a critical piece in a constellation of broader reforms. Hopefully, other cities in New York and around the country will follow suit.

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