LEAD is a pre-arrest and pre-booking diversion program that allows officers to redirect individuals committing specified law violations due to behavioral health conditions such as substance use or mental health to community-based services instead of jail and prosecution (for a current list of Seattle eligibility criteria see here. When an officers determine a referral is appropriate, they call a case manager and there is a direct warm hand-off from officers to case managers. LEAD participants begin working immediately with case managers to identify needs and goals. LEAD’s aims are to reduce the harm individuals cause to themselves, as well as the harm that they may be causing the community. This public safety program has been shown to reduce recidivism rates for those diverted and to be less expensive than using the criminal justice system as normal and thereby preserving expensive criminal justice system resources for more serious or violent offenders.

What is LEAD?

What is the difference between “pre-booking” and “pre-arrest”?

When originally designed and implemented in Belltown LEAD was a “pre-booking” diversion program. In this model an officer absolutely had probable cause for an arrest and had the individual in custody. Once they determined that the individual met the eligibility criteria for LEAD, officers were allowed to offer the individual an immediate referral to a case manager.

Not long after launching LEAD, however, front line officers began requesting a different way of diverting individuals to LEAD. Their central argument was that they are out on the streets every day and that waiting until they had grounds to make an arrest on a LEAD eligible offense made little sense. Based on this – and the fact that individuals were approaching officers and asking to be arrested in order to get into LEAD – we implemented a pre-arrest based route of referral. This pre-arrest route (or “social contact” diversion) is now the primary route of diversion in several areas doing LEAD.

What is distinct about LEAD compared to other approaches?

First, LEAD is the result of a commitment from law enforcement agencies, public officials, and community organizations to work collaboratively and consistently in addressing non-violent law violations arising out of behavioral health conditions. Unlike other programs such as therapeutic courts, diversion to LEAD is made either pre-arrest or pre-booking, thus bypassing the costs and time entailed in booking, charging, and court appearances. LEAD is also rooted in established theories of behavior change and proven evidence-based behavior change practices. Based on this, LEAD provides participants with immediate case management services, access to additional resources not available through existing public programs, and does not impose artificial time constraints or arbitrary compliance requirements on individuals. LEAD works with individuals both literally and figuratively “where they’re at”. In some cases this means working with individuals over the course of several years.

Who is eligible for diversion into LEAD?

The most current set of diversion protocols for Seattle is available here. Each jurisdiction that implements LEAD determines what eligibility and exclusionary criteria are most appropriate locally. Some areas will only divert for misdemeanors and specific offenses, while others have elected to divert for any nonviolent offense attributable to a behavioral health condition and/or poverty.

Who designed LEAD?

LEAD is the result of an unusual collaboration among diverse stakeholders. Collaborators include the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, the Seattle Police Department, the King County Sheriff’s Office, the King County Executive, the Mayor’s Office, The Washington State Department of Corrections, the Public Defender Association, the ACLU of Washington, and community members. The collaboration of these stakeholders was motivated by a shared dissatisfaction with the outcomes and costs of traditional drug law enforcement.

Who runs LEAD?

As noted, LEAD is the result of a collaboration among a number of stakeholders. All stakeholders are represented on LEAD’s Policy Coordinating Group, and the group makes decisions by consensus via a memorandum of understanding. LEAD is entirely voluntary, and any stakeholder may choose to withdraw from LEAD at any time.

Who provides services to LEAD participants?

LEAD stakeholders have contracted with Evergreen Treatment Services (ETS) to provide services to LEAD participants. ETS has provided addiction treatment services in Washington for 40 years, and has been actively involved in numerous federally-funded research projects. ETS’ REACH Program has been a key provider in the delivery of street outreach services to chronically homeless and chemically addicted adults in Seattle for 20 years. Utilizing established theories of behavior change such as stages of change and Maslow’s hierarchy and tools such as motivational interviewing, ETS case managers are not office based, but instead work with LEAD participants both literally and figuratively where they’re at. Additional service providers will join LEAD in 2020, including Community Passageways.

How do we know that LEAD works?

LEAD was rigorously evaluated by an independent team of researchers from the University of Washington. Their evaluation was funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF), which was not one of the foundations funding LEAD itself. Thus, neither the evaluators nor their funder had any stake in the evaluation results. The evaluation team worked closely with an evaluation advisory committee composed of representatives from the Seattle Mayor’s office, the King County Executive’s office, the city and county council, and others. LJAF also named another independent researcher to serve as an outside advisor and monitor. LEAD is the only pre-arrest/pre-booking program to have been this rigorously evaluated. Programs funded by the state in California and Colorado are being independently evaluated by state designated academic researchers with expertise in criminal justice system interventions.


For summaries of the Seattle evaluations and links to the evaluations please see here.

Have programs like LEAD been implemented elsewhere?

Yes. Not long after LEAD was piloted in Seattle other jurisdictions began reaching out to Seattle stakeholders asking for assistance in replicating the program in their area. Well before any evaluation data on the Seattle project were available Santa Fe, NM became the second city to implement LEAD. Since then over 35 other areas have also replicated LEAD and it has been funded at both the federal and state level (in California, Colorado, and Hawai’i). These jurisdictions range in size from less than 15,000 to over four million and are widely different in terms of socio-demographic characteristics. The one commonality in all these areas is a shared sense that the status quo of relying on the criminal justice system to respond to law violations committed by individuals with behavioral health problems is inadequate, insufficient, and too costly.