Three Years of LEAD

The diversion program has had successes, but is still heavily mediated by the criminal justice system

By now, the familiar talking points of Santa Fe's Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program are easy to rattle off: It gets drug-addicted people into treatment instead of the criminal justice system. It saves money on costs of incarceration. It's more humane, swapping an abstinence-only regimen with a more understanding approach.

For the uninitiated, LEAD is a program spearheaded by the Drug Policy Alliance in which people caught committing nonviolent crimes can be directed toward social and mental health services instead of being prosecuted in court. Similar programs are in place or development in 30 cities and counties across the country, according to Santa Fe LEAD.

The "law enforcement assisted" descriptor isn't entirely accurate; the program in practice is led by police and prosecutors, who determine from the start who can enter. Social service providers are there to offer programming and assistance. The only way somebody can even attain the menu of services offered by LEAD is if police refer them to the program.

"It has to be through law enforcement," Deputy District Attorney Jason Lidyard told a room of about a dozen people at the Southside Library on Tuesday night. It was the first of two public meetings for community members to attend and learn about the program. Minutes ago, Lidyard had highlighted the successes of diverting 98 people over the last three years from prosecution and into treatment and services.

Before LEAD, a person arrested with drugs on their person would have been sent straight to jail, Lidyard said. "Along with the stress and anxiety" of being locked up, "there's also drugs. Unfortunately, drugs are just as available inside our jail facility as they are outside." The likely outcome of a felony drug conviction, Lidyard said, would make it even harder for them to get their lives together and kick their habit.

For Lidyard and proponents of LEAD, systemic problems with jails and the criminal justice system hinder an addicted person from getting clean. The theory is that if people can overcome their addictions, they're less susceptible to committing crimes—particularly property crime. Between 2010 and 2013, according to Lidyard, every person convicted of property crimes in Santa Fe already had either a previous conviction or a charge for possession of illegal drugs. Clean people, in LEAD's telling, means less crime.

Numbers from LEAD seem to bear out this theory. Shelly Moeller, the program manager for Santa Fe LEAD, told the room that their data showed people in the program were less likely to get booked on a new offense, mirroring findings from Seattle, where the program was first piloted. As a result of LEAD, Moeller said, over a dozen Santa Feans were able to maintain permanent housing and almost twice that number received "medication assisted treatment" for their drug abuse, and the vast majority received some form of counseling and therapy.

The Santa Fe program is now playing an important role for LEAD nationally. When it came here back in 2014, it was only the second iteration of the program after Seattle. Santa Fe is currently evaluating its own program using the same criteria used in Seattle, and the results will be published sometime in the spring. If they are positive, said Moeller, the US Department of Justice could give the LEAD program a seal of approval that will make it easier to seed in communities elsewhere.

Before the close of the presentation, Denise Herrera told the room that LEAD in Santa Fe was the only thing that helped her son maintain sobriety, after 13 years of unsuccessful rehab stints in several states.

"They didn't judge him; they listened and worked with him, not against him," Herrera said, her voice breaking with emotion. Her son sat a few feet away. "In my heart of hearts, I'm forever thankful for LEAD and all staff who've made this drastic change, not just for my son's life." Her son would not be alive today without LEAD, she concluded.

In spite of its seemingly liberal approach to drug addiction, however, academics elsewhere have criticized LEAD for enlarging the role of the criminal justice system in health and wellness. Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, says LEAD is "one of those reforms that doesn't really get to the heart of the matter."

"Why is it that the police are turned to as the only people who could possibly sort out who the people who need help are?" he tells SFR. He argues that LEAD is part of a larger cultural issue where police are encouraged to take on greater roles in civil society.

Writing about LEAD in his book The End of Policing, Vitale argued that "framing [drug addiction] as a policing issue bases access to needed services on how much the officer is motivated to resolve a public-order problem," and suggested that a person muttering to themselves in a high-profile shopping district were more likely to gain the sustained attention of police than a person struggling away from the eyes of the law.

None of these criticisms were voiced at Tuesday's meeting, but you'll have a chance to attend Santa Fe LEAD's second public meeting and ask whatever you want on Tuesday Jan. 16 at the Santa Fe Public Library's LaFarge Branch (1730 Llano St.). Be there by 5:30 pm.

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