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February 12, 2022

Seattle proves ‘humane’ criminal justice reform works, others follow blueprint

Dan Satterberg has been prosecuting crime in King County, Washington, for 37 years. Soon, he will be history. In January, he announced he will not seek reelection as the county’s top elected prosecutor.

In his last election, Satterberg campaigned as a reformer. The headline on his 2018 campaign website was “A National Model for Reform.” A big part of that reform is a program he championed called LEAD – Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. It takes low-level drug offenders out of the criminal justice system before they are ever arrested or booked.

“The LEAD program …  is one of the things I hope to consider one of my legacy programs,” Satterberg said. “I want to see it for another 20 or 30 years.”

On Feb. 11 at the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting, Satterberg and four other experts discussed LEAD and its legacy. The webinar “The Lawyers' Role in Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) Programs,” was sponsored by the ABA Criminal Justice Section.

LEAD started in Seattle in 2011 and has been replicated in more than 100 cities and counties across the country.

“Lawyers may have started the LEAD program,” Satterberg said, “but I think now it needs to be taken by the community and expanded as much more of an infrastructure apparatus that can help people. And if there are no lawyers involved, that would be fine too.

“I’ll always be a fan of this humanistic approach,” he said. “It’s a way to save lives. It’s a way to acknowledge the harm that the justice system has done over the years in the war on drugs.”

Miriam Krinsky, executive director of a prosecutors group called Fair and Just Prosecution, agreed. “We need to move away from cruelty and look to how we can bring back humanity,” she said. “How do we bring back dignity? How do we rebuild trust that has been so deeply fractured over the past few years?”

Under LEAD, police and prosecutors work together to help people charged with low-level crimes and who have unmet behavioral health needs by diverting them from the criminal justice system.

Supporters say LEAD decreases the “police-ability” of many low-level situations. The program works mostly with individuals engaged in low-level drug crime, but also prostitution and crimes of poverty. It connects them with case managers who provide crisis response, assessment and long-term services, including housing and substance use treatment.

Devin Majkut, a LEAD case manager with Evergreen Treatment Services in Seattle, recalled one recent case. It involved a young man who operated in the open-air drug market in downtown Seattle.

The young man faced many felony and misdemeanor charges and spent time in the county jail, Majkut said. “He was really struggling in the legal system and the therapeutic system,” she recalled. His progress was slow, but under LEAD, prosecutors could stick with him over a long time.

In 2021, the young man finally pursued treatment for long-term heroin use. Prosecutors were able to resolve 13 out-of-county arrest warrants, as well as felony and misdemeanor charges in King County, Majkut said. “The level of negotiation we saw from the prosecutor’s office on that case was incredible.”

Advocates say there are two “golden rules” to LEAD: First, no one can be worse off because they participate in the program. Second, police and lawyers do whatever is in their power that is most likely to change a participant’s behavior. In other words, advocates say, discretion is integral to the program’s success.

“It takes a mind-shift for prosecutors,” said Leandra Craft, senior deputy prosecuting attorney in King County.

Keeping low-level cases out of court is essential, Satterberg said. “If the court system was ever a path to treatment, it just isn’t today,” he said. “This is the natural evolution of struggling with a drug crisis … Our response has been mainly one throughout the country of cruelty and of incarceration and of process over relationships.”

The LEAD alternative, Satterberg said, is to build “trust relationships” with case managers who can tell drug users “they care about them, that they want to help them. I guarantee you that that conversation has never happened in any courtroom that I was ever in with a drug user.”