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Recently a delegation from San Francisco’s Sentencing Commission travelled to Seattle, Washington to visit the LEAD program. LEAD operates in partnership with a variety of community stakeholders including business, law enforcement, and community service providers. It is a police discretionary program that allows line officers to divert substance abusers with repeat systems-involvement into treatment programs. Police officers are able to identify potential enrollees through direct contact with them and provide a 30-day window to complete an intake and assessment process before the incident of arrest.

San Francisco Sentencing Commission delegation

(Photography credit Simin Shamji, 2014)

The program is unique for many reasons. To name a few, LEAD is voluntary, the program incorporates a harm reduction model, and it meets people where they are at in life.

LEAD targets a challenging population, individuals engaging in low-level non-violent crimes to maintain their personal addiction. Many of LEAD’s participants are homeless with extensive histories of justice-involvement and utilization of emergency community resources. So, how do you effectively meet these individuals where they are at in life?

This requires changing the lens in how you approach your work and your definition of success. A harm reduction model recognizes relapse is a component of recovery. Success is individually defined, as harm reduction is not a one size fits all approach. This model challenges you to think differently about the people you serve and requires service providers, law enforcement leaders, advocates, and research organizations to conduct business differently.

This model can be a hard pill to swallow for those that do not understand it. Human service agencies tend to desire to fix people whether it is through variety of other interventions. A harm reduction model sees success as decreased use of narcotics, alcohol, or whatever problematic behavior the individual displays.

The Harm Reduction Coalition defines this approach as a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Further, it is a movement to develop respect for the rights of people who use drugs. So, how do you successfully cultivate this belief within multiple and diverse systems?

My visit with the LEAD program proved it requires extensive conversations amongst a diverse group of stakeholders. It necessitates difficult conversations that may challenge someone’s core. Most importantly it requires the willingness to serve the targeted population with dignity and respect instead of ignoring or condemning them.

The community’s pro-active response to this population of individuals’ with repeat system involvement was impressive. The non-judgmental and non-coercive approach to providing services is designed in a way to meet enrollees on their terms.

Humanizing people by recognizing justice-involvement and individuals with chronic substance problems, are not enemies, but members of the community is essential to any type of service, whether it incorporates a harm reduction model or not. These individuals deserve community support and engagement, not isolation and banishment. Seattle’s LEAD program is gaining well-deserved national attention for leading the way in which we serve people with a demonstrated history of low-level, non-violent arrests.