Michael Suguitan / Sun Staff Photographer

Najja Morris, operations advisor for the LEAD National Support Bureau, said at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center on Monday night that the program would connect people to services they need.

November 14, 2017

Ithacans Learn of Proposed Assisted Diversion Program

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The City of Ithaca is developing a new program that would allow Ithaca Police to divert low-level offenders to community-based services instead of arresting and incarcerating them, in an attempt to reduce recidivism rates as well as the city’s reliance on the criminal justice system.

Launched first in Seattle in 2011, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, program aims to reduce criminal behaviors by providing people with immediate support services, according to the LEAD National Support Bureau. Eligible individuals would be diverted to the LEAD program at the pre-booking stage, bypassing an incarceration process criticized as slow and costly.

At a community forum for the proposed program at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center on Monday night, Najja Morris, operations advisor for the LEAD National Support Bureau, described the program as not just a treatment program, but one that “connects a struggling person to services that can actually do something, instead of jail.”

People in the program would go through a thorough psychological assessment so that case managers and mental health providers can build a “careful and complete picture” of the individual, Morris said.

Keith Brown, Albany LEAD project director for the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice, said the operation of the program is based on a harm reduction philosophy and trauma-informed care. The services provided would be entirely based on the self-identified needs of participants, while immediate abstinence of illegal activities would not be required.

Gibrian Hagood, an attendee, asked whether the LEAD program would have an impact on what he said was the implicit racial bias of some police officers.

In response, Morris said LEAD permits police officers to build close relationships with people who may need the program’s help, which might help officers gradually reduce implicit bias. Building those connections, he said, could lead to a more equal relationship between white officers and citizens of color whom they serve.

Morris said LEAD was designed to reduce the negative impact of mass incarceration and the racial disparity of arrests in the Seattle area.

Another objective of LEAD is to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the community, as both parties are “aligning around the same goals”, Brown said. He said LEAD creates a third option for police officers, besides arresting or ignoring low-level offenses.

Instead, he said, they can divert citizens into programs that would, in theory, be beneficial to them and the community.

The proposed program had its skeptics and critics, as well.

Joey Cardamone, another attendee, said many people believe that it would be better to put offenders in jail, rather than divert them into community service programs. Robert Lynch, a 49-year Ithaca resident and paralegal, said he was concerned that low-level offenders would be wandering on the streets and disturbing businesses. And Debra Martens, who has been living in Ithaca for more than 40 years, said she was skeptical that LEAD would be effective, given the fact that there are already many social services programs.

“I live next to the Southern Tier Aids Program house, the Magnolia house for homeless and addicted women, and another house for homeless men,” Martens said. “People are smoking and yelling by the streetside all night, and that has affected the quality of my life in downtown area.”

Martens said she is also worried that LEAD would normalize the use of heroin. Morris said police officers will receive training to increase their awareness of mental health issues when dealing with citizens suffering from these problems or other traumas.

Brown said that in Seattle, criminal recidivism of those who participated in LEAD was reduced by 58 percent compared to offenders who went in and out of the standard system of incarceration.

“It’s important to know that you can protect people better by not putting [the offenders] in jail,” Brown said, “just like you can’t solve the issue of homelessness by arresting homeless people.”

“LEAD belongs to no single person or entity,” Morris added. “We are all equal partners here. We have shared credit and shared responsibility.”