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An alternative approach to criminal justice

City hears law enforcement assisted diversion presentation
Sunday, October 6, 2019

The San Marcos City Council considered an alternative approach to criminal justice this week.

The program, called law enforcement assisted diversion (LEAD) is a community-based diversion approach aimed to improve public safety while reducing the unnecessary justice system involvement of people who participate in the program, according to Chief (Ret.) Brendan Cox, Director of Policing Strategies for the LEAD National Support Bureau. Monday afternoon during a work session, the San Marcos City Council heard a presentation on the program by Cox.

LEAD’s diversion program began in 2011 in Seattle, Washington and has since been implemented in 42 municipalities. Cox said the program began as a way to reduce the racial disparities that existed in the system.

The United States comprises 5% of the world’s population, yet the country has 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, According to data presented by Cox,

The overall population was 76.6% white, 13.4% black and 18.1 % Hispanic in 2018 according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Justice presented by Cox. Yet, the sentenced population in 2016 was 39% white, 41.3% black and 21% Hispanic.

“If we’re not looking at our data, and we’re not looking at what we do, and we’re not paying attention to that then we’re doing an injustice to the communities that we ultimately serve,” Cox said.

What is LEAD?

When implemented, the program diverts individuals whose problems are driven by behavioral illnesses out of the justice system whenever possible and into longterm, non-coercive case management, according to Cox.

“When we talk about LEAD and we talk about what we’re going to be diverting, we’re not talking about taking people who commit gunpoint robberies and diverting them to the street,” Cox said. “We’re talking about people that are committing lower-level offenses.”

Though the program can be adjusted based on a municipality’s need, typical crimes diverted through the LEAD include drug possession, minor drug sales, sex work and crimes driven by addiction, mental illness, poverty or homelessness. Those served through LEAD could include individuals suffering from substance abuse disorders, mental illness, poverty and homelessness.

A diversion occurs when an officer is presented with an arrestable offense. If the offense qualifies, an officer can instead offer someone LEAD as an alternative to arrest. However, officers may also make a “social contact referral,” which means an officer can refer an individual who may need assistance into LEAD without waiting for the individual to commit an arrestable offense.

Cox said once an individual accepts the offer to be included in the program, they are handed directly to a case manager who conducts an immediate triage at the scene.

“This is not an office-based case management philosophy,” Cox said. “This is out on the streets wherever those people are. If those individuals are living under a bridge, they’re going under the bridge and meet them there.”

If the individual fulfills an assessment with the case manager, their one charge is not filed and the case is diverted entirely out of the justice system, said Cox.

The case manager will then start to build a relationship with the individual and work with them to make incremental changes, such as getting an ID, securing housing and obtaining a job, Cox said.

“We look to really do something different,” Cox said. “We recognize that arresting those individuals isn’t going to make a difference so we look to try to deal with the root cause of the issue and to really increase public safety by doing that.”

How is it implemented?

LEAD is implemented through coordination between law enforcement officers, case managers, service providers, prosecutors, community leaders and health agencies. Cox suggested the formation of a policy coordinating group to initiate the program. The working group would then work to create a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the parties involved in the program, such as the police department, case managers and health agencies.

After an MOU is in place, the city could consider hiring a project manager to lead the implementation of LEAD.

In Texas, an unorthodox LEAD program has been implemented in a middle school in Houston, said Cox. According to LEAD’s website, Austin, Houston and San Antonio are exploring the program.

Discussion on LEAD:

During discussion on the presentation Assistant Chief of Police Brandon Winkenwerder noted that a mental health program already exists within SMPD. The program, according to Winkenwerder, started in 2011 or 2012 and allows individuals who are having a mental health crisis to be transported to services or Hill Country MHDD, the mental health hospital in the area.

“If we’ve got somebody in crisis the officer recognizes that and they get them to those services before having to take them to jail,” Winkenwerder said. “If it’s someone in crisis and they have a minor offense they can work through that program with a deferment for mental health, so we do have one part of that program already in place.”

“It’s not simply a matter of telling the police they need to start using LEAD, they need to have those tools,” District Attorney Wes Mau said. “So finding those tools is the important part of that.”

Cox ultimately suggested the current criminal justice task force — the Criminal Justice Reform Committee — look at forming a policy group and then working from there to implement LEAD.

San Marcos Record

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