Albany launches LEAD diversion program
Program will move low-level violators into treatment
Alice Green shook her head in amazement at former adversaries gathered — black and white, cops and activists, prosecutors and social workers — to announce a new collaboration that will divert low-level criminals away from jail and into treatment services for addiction and mental illness.
“This historic moment could not have happened 10 years ago,” said Green, the city’s foremost black activist and head of The Center for Law and Justice, where Thursday’s news conference was held.
Green railed for decades against disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration for blacks.
She cited a study that found that 71 percent of all adult arrests were people of color in Albany in 2010, although minorities accounted for less than half the overall population.
Albany is the third city in the nation, following Seattle and Santa Fe, that launched an innovative criminal justice program aimed at reducing low-level arrests, racial disparities and recidivism. It’s called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD. More than 30 other cities are mulling a LEAD program, which took Albany more than two years of planning among dozens of groups.
In Seattle, which started its LEAD program in 2011, there was a 58 percent reduction in recidivism among participants and the city is expanding it based on the evidence-based success. The Albany organizers traveled to Seattle to study its operation.
“It was a long, hard road to get here, but no city has done more than Albany, from the mayor on down,” said Gabriel Sayegh, co-founder of Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice in Brooklyn, who shepherded Albany’s efforts. He turned to cities after failing to gain traction for LEAD in the U.S. Congress and the New York State Legislature.
The program officially begins in Albany on Friday, after all the city’s 342 officers complete four hours of training on exercising discretion to divert offenders involved in low-level crimes such as shoplifting and marijuana possession.
A relatively small number of these offenders, who often suffer from mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction, repeatedly tie up limited resources in the criminal justice system and are called “frequent fliers.” “We’re fed up with the way the system is, too, and we want to change it,” said Albany Police Chief Brendan Cox. “This is a no-brainer.”
Cox said he got overwhelming support from rank-and-file officers, including 40 who requested additional training so they can be program leaders.
“We are here making a promise to the community,” Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan said. “For too long, there have been broken and unrealized promises. We are stepping up and working together in a radically different way.”
An initial $150,000 to hire a project manager, case manager and outreach worker came through Albany Medical Center, which tapped Medicaid Redesign funds — a creative financing approach used for the first time nationally.
LEAD program workers will work out of Lwanga Center, a homeless shelter at 115 Grand St., run by Catholic Charities. “This is a transformative process,” said Keith Brown, executive director of Catholic Charities’ care coordination service. He trained cops on LEAD practices and praised their commitment.
A chilly wind buffeted the crowd who stood on Green Street in a once-blighted area known as “The Gut,” where fearsome Albany cops in the 1930s and later decades were truncheon-wielding goons known as “The Night Squad.” Deep-seated mistrust of cops reached a flashpoint in the wake of a Dec. 29, 2011 fatal shooting by police officers of 19-year-old Nah-Cream Moore, a parolee also suspected in an armed home invasion. Moore, who was black, was shot three times in the torso during a scuffle with cops after a traffic stop on South Pearl Street. A grand jury cleared the cops in the shooting.
To add perspective, Green quoted lyrics from “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a 1964 Sam Cooke song that became a potent anthem of the civil rights movement: “It’s been a long, a long time comin’/But I know a change gon’ come, yes it will.”
There were murmurs of assent in the crowd, a diverse group that mixed former convicts with those who had put them behind bars.
“Going to jail is not the answer for a lot of people. This provides other options,” said Sam Wiggins, 56, an Army vet and former addict who served time in prison for drug dealing and theft in Brooklyn. He’s been sober since he came to Albany 22 years ago and now counsels vets and ex-convicts.