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Prosecutor Dan Satterberg says LEAD program expansion will get people off drugs

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. (KIRO Radio)

Expanding the LEAD program throughout the county will save taxpayer dollars and get drug addicts clean sooner, according to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.

The program, which stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, was implemented in Seattle seven years ago and will now expand to the rest of King County. Rather than jail, it offers rehab and services to people caught with under a gram of drugs, with the idea that this is the best pathway to help that person to reform their life.

“Instead of putting small amounts of drug cases into court, instead we give police officers the option to call someone from the LEAD program to come and begin to work with that individual,” Satterberg told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson. “It’s another tool that police have.”

RELATED: Dori says LEAD program expansion means drugs are now legal in King County

Through this program, people caught with under a gram of drugs — what Satterberg said is roughly the amount of drugs a daily user would have in their pocket — are not prosecuted.

Dori argued that this is a de facto legalization of drugs in King County.

The prosecutor pointed out that the county currently spends $3.5 million a year for charges of possession of “tiny amounts” of drugs in a court system “that isn’t designed to help people overcome addiction.” Drug addicts who are caught go on to detox in jail, which costs quite a bit of taxpayer money in medical treatment, and then get out of jail to become repeat offenders.

“What we’re doing is to invest instead in a system that’s going to offer help to people on the first day, and not wait a year to convict them and give them no help,” Satterberg said.

The important distinction of LEAD, Satterberg said, is that it looks at drug addiction as a medical issue rather than a criminal one. Police hope that through the LEAD program, they can get through to drug users and give them the helping hand they need to finally get on the path to sobriety.

“We’re going to use that arrest as an intervention point to try to get them on to medically-assisted treatment … we’re trying to intervene much earlier, and it’s a much better use of taxpayer money,” Satterberg said.

He pointed out that use of the LEAD program is at the officer’s discretion. It “can be overcome if police believe this is a dangerous person, if they just got out of prison.”

Dori is concerned Seattle is becoming famous as a place that does not criminalize drug use, and as a result, is becoming a hotspot for drug addicts from around the nation.

“Most of the addicts that we have on the streets came here from elsewhere … and I think that we are getting a reputation as the easiest place to be an addict,” Dori said.

Satterberg responded that when it comes to drug users, the county government can ignore them, punish them, or help them; having done the first two in the past, the county is focusing on the third.

“People who are getting help are less likely to get re-arrested, they’re more likely to be on the medications that mean they don’t have to go out and commit a crime every day to get heroin,” he said. “It’s just better for public safety, it’s a better investment of our money.”

He said that the LEAD program has been successful in Seattle over the past seven years, noting that the 525 people currently in the LEAD program are doing well. Still, one program won’t solve the problem.

“LEAD is one program — there are 50 things that you need to do,” he said. “But the people who are in the LEAD program are doing much better.”

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