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By Gregory Powers
While the U.S. incarceration rate recently fell to its lowest level since 1995, the nation still incarcerates a larger proportion of its population than any other country in the world. Right now, there are an estimated two million people behind bars—representing a 500 percent increase over the past 40 years.
Stark racial inequalities also exist within our jail population. For example, Black Americans make up 38 percent of those incarcerated, while only representing 12 percent of the general population.
Furthermore, many of the individuals behind bars have behavioral health needs. Nearly 68 percent of people in jail have a diagnosable substance use disorder, while the prevalence of mental illness is typically two to four times higher among those in jails than the general population.
In fact, in the majority of states, a jail or prison holds more individuals who have behavioral health needs than the state’s largest remaining psychiatric hospital.
How did this happen?
A multitude of historic events—harsher penalties for drug offenses, greater use of life sentences, closure of numerous state psychiatric hospitals, and use of policies that disproportionately affect communities of color and persons of lower socioeconomic status—have all contributed to the nation’s current situation.
However, there’s been progress in recent years, as many communities have sought to reduce their jail populations through new, evidence-based practice and policy changes.
One strategy involves changes to community law enforcement and early interventions that reach people before they become entangled with the criminal justice system—particularly for lower-level offenses where those arrested are typically not considered a threat to public safety.
Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion and Deflection (LEADD) is a law-enforcement intervention designed to provide officers with alternatives to citation, arrest, and incarceration. And it’s currently in its pilot phase in Washtenaw County.
It’s the result of Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton’s vision to provide an essential "front-end services component" of the county’s Continuum Of Services and Sanctions Model—which align with intercepts in the Sequential Intercept Model, a model that details how individuals with mental and substance use disorders come into contact with and move through the criminal justice system.
Reaching people early to determine their needs
Hailey Richards is Washtenaw County’s LEADD program coordinator and came to the position in October 2021. She describes the program as a “pre-booking diversion” initiative that connects individuals with unmet needs to a community-based case manager who then connects them to resources—instead of using the traditional criminal justice system as a first option. Needs can include housing, employment, treatment—or sometimes something as basic as getting a state-issued ID.
“It’s designed for people who commit lower-level offenses,” says Richards, “and have historically cycled through our criminal justice system.” Oftentimes, this is due to a mix of social and economic issues—mental illness, poverty, homelessness, substance use, and trauma.
“It’s also a tool for deputies,” explains Richards, “that gives them a different option, instead of arresting someone.”
Richards notes the program is rooted in evidence—lowering arrests, felony charges, and decreasing recidivism when folks get connected to social support services.
While Washtenaw County’s program was originally launched by reallocating Sheriff’s Office funding, in addition to a grant from Vital Strategies, it is now supported by the county’s Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage dollars.
A systems-wide approach to criminal justice reform
Richards is in charge of implementing day-to-day operations and liaising with program committee members who make operational and policy decisions including the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH), the county’s Prosecuting Attorney and Public Defender, and McLain and Winters Law Firm, as related to their prosecutorial activities on behalf of Ypsilanti Township.
Richards explains the program brought together essential county players who were sometimes working toward similar goals, but previously existed in silos.
“Washtenaw County has other diversion programs,” says Richards, “but this is the first truly systems-wide approach where all of the necessary partners are on board.” She notes that LEADD promotes collaboration across the entire criminal justice apparatus—from law enforcement to prosecution to courts.
A pilot program with ambitions
LEADD currently operates in the Ypsilanti Township zip codes of 48197 and 48198—an area with a greater proportion of people who could benefit from the program based on data from the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office.
Since October 2021, 16 deputies and sergeants have been trained in LEADD. WCCMH has also hired two case managers who directly work with LEADD participants.
So far, the program has made 35 social contact referrals. At the time of this publication, there are 10 active LEADD participants—a number Richards expects to increase as the program continues.
And while the program is still ramping up, Richards has already witnessed positive developments with some of the initial cases. For example, Richards notes that some people chose to engage because the program is a collaborative effort between entities, rather than the Sheriff’s Office alone.
“The program is really bridging the gap between criminal justice and community service providers,” notes Richards.
“There are even community members reaching out to case managers because they want to participate or know someone who would benefit from the program,” something she says will be an option down the road.
Meeting people where they are
Richards explains that the program is client-directed and based on a person’s personal goals.
Therefore, while abstinence from substance use might be one participant’s goal, another might focus on less use or utilizing tools that reduce the potential for harm, such as naloxone for preventing an overdose.
“The program meets people where they’re at, which looks different for everyone,” says Richards. “People might not reduce their contact with law enforcement altogether or instantly stop using substances, but they are showing signs of improvement.”
“One participant went over four months without [law enforcement] contact,” she notes. “This was the longest stretch of time since 2017. Another participant, despite ongoing trauma, successfully completed college classes. They are working with the program to find safe housing. And they reported using substances less and increased their access to safe use materials, like naloxone, through LEADD.”
At its core, LEADD tries to support people in reducing an individual’s harm—to themselves and to others. It’s also completely voluntary for a person to participate. “No one fails LEADD,” explains Richards. “It’s not performance-based. Someone could take five years to complete it. But it’s never going to exclude a person [who wants to participate].”
Looking ahead to future developments
As the program progresses, Richards says she is looking forward to several things. One is building a community leadership team who will give input to the program. “It’s really important for the community to have a voice in the implementation and operations [of LEADD],” she affirms.
The Sheriff’s Office has already held several community outreach and educational events through Facebook Live and has more outreach plans in the works. If LEADD is shown to be successful, there’s hope for the program to expand throughout the county. Which leads to the other component that Richards is excited about: the program’s evaluation.
“It’s important to understand if the program is effective,” says Richards. “That’s why there’s an evaluation component that will analyze multiple dimensions of the program and allow us to make adjustments accordingly.”
She notes the importance of Washtenaw County as a group of 11 LEADD sites that are part of a “proof of concept” cohort—evaluating if the program works in a variety of communities.
“So we’re very important to the national initiative toward diversion and deflection,” Richards says.
Want to learn more about Washtenaw County LEADD? Click here to watch a Facebook Live conversation about LEADD featuring participating county agencies and representatives.