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Curious about LEAD

Quick Guides

In recent decades, it’s become increasingly clear that we can’t arrest our way out of the problems associated with unmanaged mental illness and/or substance use.

Over the years, determined people from communities of every type – large and small, conservative and liberal, urban and rural – have joined the effort to create safer, healthier, more equitable communities by reducing our reliance on the criminal legal system and investing in effective, community-based alternatives to jail and prosecution for people living with these challenges.

The LEAD model emerged from just such an effort, when a group of diverse stakeholders – civil rights lawyers, prosecutors, police officers, racial justice advocates – decided to work together to build a new approach, resolving years of contentious litigation with an effort at building common ground. All of the original partners ventured into this effort voluntarily – no one was ordered or compelled to participate. Originated in Seattle in 2011, LEAD has since been replicated in scores of communities across the United States – and, increasingly, in other parts of the world.

In a LEAD framework, policymakers, service providers, criminal legal stakeholders, and community members work together to enhance public safety and order by better addressing the problems that can come from unmanaged mental illness, substance use, or extreme poverty. LEAD offers an effective, coordinated, system of response and sustained care that redirects eligible people to community-based services, reducing use of jail and prosecution.

Evidence shows that when it’s implemented with fidelity, LEAD works: A rigorous set of external evaluations of the flagship site in Seattle found that LEAD reduced rates of re-arrest by 58%, new felony charges by 39%, and prison admission by 87%, compared to a control group, while reducing systems costs and increasing rates of permanent housing by 89% and legitimate income by 33%. Those gains were experienced comparably across racial categories, indicating that LEAD was achieving the intended goal of reducing racial disparity among those subjected to punitive sanctions–not inadvertently exacerbating it, as is too often the case with well-intended reform initiatives.

Whether you’re exploring LEAD, are eager to begin a LEAD initiative, have encountered challenges in LEAD implementation, or are seeking guidance in expansion or evaluation, this Toolkit offers resources to help your community build better safety, health, and equity with LEAD.


Is anyone eligible for LEAD?

Many people who come into occasional contact with the criminal legal, social service, or behavioral health systems – via a single arrest, a temporary economic hurdle, or a difficult psychological period – can successfully find their way through these challenges without suffering severe and lasting consequences. For them, the established system of response and care may prove to be sufficiently accessible and manageable.

These are not the people LEAD is intended to serve.

Instead, LEAD is expressly designed to provide a new system of care for people whose complex, ongoing, unmet behavioral health needs result in disruptive or unlawful behavior. They may lack reliable shelter, income, food, health care, and positive social networks, and may find existing systems inaccessible, impossibly complicated, or insufficiently responsive.

How can LEAD work alongside other initiatives?

As an alternative response that builds a long-term system of care, LEAD can beneficially coexist alongside many other interventions. 1) In communities that have crisis-response teams, for example, LEAD can enhance the long-term post-crisis system of care. 2) For communities with specialty courts, LEAD can serve as an adaptive resource for people who might otherwise struggle to comply with court dates or mandates. 3) For communities interested in developing non-police alternative responses to public disorder, LEAD can serve as both first responders and long-term care coordinators.

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