What Is Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion?

By Jackie Cole 21

An illustration of LEAD (Photo Credit: The College Hill Independent - Alana Baer)
An illustration of LEAD (Photo Credit: The College Hill Independent - Alana Baer)

The criminal justice system in the United States takes suspects through the process of booking, detention, prosecution, and, for convicts, conviction, and, eventually, incarceration. Regardless of offense—whether shoplifting, drug use, or murder—these steps apply. The way this system operates gives way to the leading statistics America represents in terms of incarceration: one out of five of the world’s prisoners are incarcerated in the United States. Despite these unsettling statistics, there is still a glimmer of hope for the future of the criminal justice system. Diverting some lower-level offenders away from the criminal justice system and into more productive facilities—rehabilitation, therapy, etc.—provides the possibility of avoiding our current high rates of incarceration. For about a decade, a mixture of police officers, prosecutors, civil rights advocates, political leaders, and health and treatment services have been teaming together to create a potential solution: Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD.


LEAD was first developed and launched in Seattle, WA in October 2011 as an attempt to counteract the racial disparities in law enforcement catalyzed by the War on Drugs. As an alternative to the current system of crime and punishment, it allows law enforcement officers to redirect low-level offenders to community-based services. The program aims to address minor drug, prostitution, and other crimes through a harm-reduction-oriented process. LEAD’s approach is to be sure that law enforcement officers’ first move following a 9-1-1 call is not handcuffs.


Here’s what LEAD looks like in action: When police respond to a call, they can choose to divert a person who has committed a low-level drug or sex work offense to a case manager. This case manager works alongside the perpetrator of the offense to form a personalized plan that aims at a healthier, safer lifestyle and redirects the client from incarceration. Often, the plan leads clients to drug addiction treatment or temporary housing that is able to change a lifestyle that would have likely otherwise led to run-ins with the criminal justice system.


The program has six primary goals: reorient the government’s response to disorder, improve public health and safety, reduce the number of people entering criminal justice system for low-level offenses, undo racial disparities in the criminal justice system, sustain funding by reinvesting justice system savings, and to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the community. While the goals are clearly articulated, the question still remains: can the collaboration required to make this program productive be accomplished?


The data collected since the program's implementation looks promising in some respects. According to a process evaluation of LEAD San Francisco, those who participated in the program were found to be 58% less likely to be arrested compared to those who endured the typical criminal justice system. It was also proven to reduce recidivism and lead to a stronger relationship between police and the community. Now, in 2020, LEAD is spreading across the US. The program is already operating in 38 cities and counties and is in the process of being explored, developed, or launched in over 70 cities across the nation.


In an evaluation of LEAD in San Francisco, CA, the program had a few key successes, mostly in the realm of building relationships between the police department and community members. LEAD San Francisco did, however, face struggles that hindered the program from reaching its full potential. These obstacles revolved around the varying levels of commitment of police officers to the culture shift required in order to successfully implement the program. A similar issue was encountered in New Haven, CT. Since the program’s implementation in New Haven in October 2017, only six successful diversions have been reported. This was blamed on the refusal of police to cooperate, as well as a lack of funding and training.


Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion has demonstrated its potential for both failure and success, all dependent on proper resources and implementation.