Howard County officials on Wednesday announced the launch of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, program, a national initiative that county Health Officer Dr. Maura Rossman called a “powerful tool for our behavioral health experts.”
The LEAD program is a diversion approach meant to reduce recidivism, where law enforcement officers can refer individuals who break the law and have behavioral health issues to an intensive case-management program instead of being prosecuted and incarcerated.
It started in Seattle, Washington, in 2011, and there are now more than 50 LEAD initiatives in the country, according to Yolanda Vazquez, external affairs director for the Office of the State’s Attorney for Howard County. The Howard County LEAD program will be the fifth program in Maryland, with others having been launched in Baltimore, Bel Air, Westminster and Washington County.
“This program breaks down the silos between law enforcement, health services and government,” Rossman said at a news conference at the Howard County Circuit Courthouse in Ellicott City. “And [it] ensures individuals receive the care and support required to address unmet behavioral health needs.”
Seven entities — the Howard County Health Department, police department, sheriff’s office, Office of the Public Defender, Department of Corrections, and the county executive’s and the state’s attorney’s offices — signed a memorandum of understating that they were willing to work together on the LEAD program, State’s Attorney Rich Gibson said.
“It is truly a collaborative effort,” Gibson said. “Each of us can see the positive impact the LEAD program will have on our community.”
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The LEAD program, Gibson said, offers an alternative for those with numerous misdemeanors and low-level offenses “that bypasses the formal criminal justice system” and does not “saddle” them with collateral consequences, such as the inability to qualify for certain business loans, limitations on future employment, limitations for public housing assistance and ineligibility to join the military.
“Sometimes people just need help,” Gibson said. “To be clear, there are times when an individual’s actions deserve and demand the full weight of our justice system.”
Each approved participant in the LEAD program will be assigned a case manager who will enroll them in services unique to their situation, whether it be mental health, substance abuse treatment, housing, family mediations, education, employment assistance or medical assistance, Gibson said.
The LEAD program is fully funded by the state for three years through a grant totaling more than $530,000, Gibson said.
“This innovative, thoughtful and proven LEAD program is a more effective public health-based approach,” Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said. “In this instance the program is vital in identifying the root causes of nonviolent crime and providing the resources necessary to reduce further harm.”
Police Chief Lisa Myers said “behavioral issues” must be addressed and that LEAD is another tool in its “tool box.”
“While it is our job to enforce violations of the law, our first choice will always be preventing those violations from happening in the first place,” Myers said. “LEAD can help change the course of someone’s path before they head in the wrong direction.”