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Helping nonviolent offenders avoid prison will lift Michigan communities.

I’ve posted before about why we should try to reduce the number of Michiganders who end up in jail when an appropriate alternative can be found. The costs of imprisonment for the state, the unequal application of our justice system by race, high rates of recidivism, and the long-term effects on the imprisoned—difficulties finding employment, housing, etc. upon release, when “serving your time” is supposed to be concluded—are all good reasons to keep looking for models that help people stay out of prison.

A Diversion Model from Seattle

In Seattle, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program gives police officers more options to address criminal activity. LEAD empowers police to send nonviolent, repeat offenders–especially those whose crimes are usually related to drug or alcohol addiction–to social services rather than jail. The social service worker, at the hub of a network of offerings, arranges drug treatment, housing, or other services. Ultimately the offenders should be less likely to commit future criminal activity if the underlying causes are addressed.

Similar to the Florida program targeted at youth that I featured previously, LEAD allows people to avoid criminal charges and the naturally oppositional system of the courts. Instead they are paired with people who can help them. Unlike other diversion programs, you are not automatically expelled from LEAD if you use or commit a crime following enrollment.

Evaluation Shows Significant Positive Results

A University of Washington study (you can review the evaluation here) shows significantly lower rates of recidivism for LEAD participants than a control group: the LEAD participants were 58% less likely to be arrested again. The LEAD group was also much less likely to commit a felony crime. And the LEAD participants experienced significant improvements in other outcomes, including, for instance, being twice as likely to be sheltered during the study follow-up. Finally, the evaluation shows that the monthly costs to the county for the program are, in many cases, offset by the savings acquired through lower utilization of the courts, jail and prison time, and other elements of the criminal justice system.

Santa Fe followed the lead of Seattle and began a LEAD program in 2014. District Attorney Angela Pacheco told the Wall Street Journal article that local officers, “didn’t take a whole lot of convincing. They were sick and tired of arresting the same people.”

For Michigan to become a high prosperity state again, we must stop permanently cutting off job prospects and support for nonviolent offenders, especially when their crimes are related to drug and alcohol addiction. There are models out there to help people get their lives back on track. Let’s learn from them.

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Sarah Szurpicki

Sarah is a policy associate for Michigan Future, Inc. and partner at New Solutions Group, LLC, a consulting firm devoted to smart, collaborative, innovative approaches for organizations serving the public good. At New Solutions she focuses on urban policy, strategic planning, and education and has led the firm's work on projects with the Michigan Municipal League, Let's Save Michigan, and Michigan Future Schools.

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