Washtenaw County program connects low-level offenders to community services instead of jail time

The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion and Deflection (LEADD) program connects offenders to a network of community-based resources without charging the individual with a crime.
​​This article is part of a series about mental health in Washtenaw County. It is made possible with funding from Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage.

Sam*, a young person living in Ypsilanti, had one goal: to complete their college degree. But their struggles with substance use — and, as a result, with the law — were derailing their progress. 

"We could see they were trying, but they just didn’t have the confidence to follow through with it," says Washtenaw County Deputy Katelyn Garlick. 

Within the parameters of the traditional criminal justice system, deputies like Garlick only had two options for someone like Sam: take them to the hospital, or take them to jail. But as of October 2021, deputies have a third tool: Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion and Deflection (LEADD)

"[LEADD] gives deputies an option to call a case manager who is an expert in community resources and have them help the individual navigate based on their long-term goals and long-term needs," says Hailey Richards, LEADD program coordinator for the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office

Thanks to LEADD, Garlick says, Sam was able to obtain stable housing and continue their education. They are also working through a rehabilitation program. 

"It’s fantastic for them," Garlick says. "It’s great to see them successful."
Katelyn Garlick.
Fines and jail time have their place in the justice system, but they fail to address the root causes of crime stemming from mental or behavioral illness, substance use, homelessness, or poverty. In fact, these measures may traumatize or further destabilize vulnerable individuals. 

"We’ve been doing it for years; it’s not working," asserts Alyson Robbins, LEADD assistant prosecuting attorney for the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office

When a Washtenaw County deputy encounters a low-level offense — something like open intoxication, disorderly conduct, or retail fraud — that seems to be motivated by one of these factors, they can refer that individual to LEADD. The program connects the offender to a network of community-based resources without charging the individual with a crime. This addresses problems at their source, reduces incarcerations and recidivism, and frees up deputies’ time for other service calls, ultimately creating safer communities. 

Proof of concept

Amidst movements that question the purpose of incarceration — and others that call to defund or even abolish the police — initiatives like LEADD reflect a willingness to reimagine the role of the criminal justice system. 

Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion/Let Everyone Advance with Dignity (LEAD) was first developed in Seattle in 2011 by a coalition of progressive-minded police, attorneys, community leaders, and mental health experts. Their goal was to address entrenched bias against Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color; swelling prison populations; incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution; and a lack of trust and confidence in law enforcement.

It proved to be an effective tool. A 2017 University of Washington analysis of 318 people — 203 who worked with LEAD and 115 who went through the traditional system — found that LEAD participants had 58% lower odds of arrest. Today, the LEAD National Support Bureau is helping jurisdictions replicate the program in more than 50 cities across the U.S., with dozens more in the exploration and development stages. 

When the Washtenaw County pilot program launched in Ypsilanti Township in October 2021, eight deputies and three sergeants were trained in LEADD (with an extra D for deflection). That number has grown to 26 deputies and five sergeants, as well as two full-time case managers hired through Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH). The sheriff's office and WCCMH chose to invest in LEADD and utilized funds received through the county's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage to initiate and sustain the initiative. Additional funding to support LEADD's launch was made possible through a a grant from Vital Strategies. The initiative is also supported by in-kind contributions from LEADD stakeholders.

"Washtenaw County is super lucky because we were selected as a Proof of Concept site, so we had LEAD Support Bureau support in helping to launch LEADD here," Robbins says. "I talk to them on a weekly basis about issues that have come up, and best practices to resolve them. It’s been a huge resource." 

There are nine other sites in the Proof of Concept Cohort, a three-year effort to prove LEAD’s efficacy across a variety of contexts. The Ann Arbor-based Center for Health and Research Transformation, in partnership with the sheriff’s office, WCCMH, the Washtenaw County Prosecutor's Office, the Washtenaw County Public Defender's Office, and McLain and Winters Law Firm, are also currently evaluating the LEADD program. This evaluation will help identify strengths and areas for improvement — and may lead to expansion beyond Ypsilanti Township. 

Meeting people where they're at

If a deputy arrives at the scene of a crime and determines that the suspect could benefit from case management (and if any potential victims decline to prosecute), LEADD can be offered in lieu of arrest or citation. If the suspect agrees to LEADD, a case manager is called to the scene to address immediate needs and then begin the process. The participant must sign a release of information and complete an intake assessment within 30 days.

An individual need not commit a crime to be referred. If a deputy knows of someone they think might benefit from LEADD, they can simply approach that person and offer it to them. In the future, Richards says, referrals may even come from community members. 

Once a participant has been referred to a case manager, they work together to create a plan tailored to the individual’s needs and goals. There are currently 12 active LEADD participants in Washtenaw County. 

"LEADD case management is intensive case management, especially compared to some other programs," Robbins says. "They’re meeting people where they’re at, both literally and physically." 

Services are based on harm reduction and have included helping participants obtain IDs and safe use materials, go to school or rehab, and apply for benefits or jobs. Case managers may even help participants with things as basic as buying bug spray or finding a clean place to take a shower. Abstinence isn’t required, and the program is entirely voluntary. Because it’s so highly individualized, there’s no point at which someone "completes" LEADD. 

"Success is different for everybody," Richards says. "We had one individual who was in and out of the Washtenaw County Jail [and] had nearly 400 law enforcement contacts throughout Washtenaw County, all across 17 years. That’s about 23 law enforcement contacts per year."
Hailey Richards.
After receiving services through LEADD, that individual went four months with no law enforcement contact — his longest stretch since 2017. 

"Now that individual is interested in next steps for treatment. So I think that’s huge," Richards says. 

There are benefits on the legal end as well. Because LEADD diverts individuals before they’re charged, if someone demonstrates that they are making progress, Robbins says her office has the discretion to dismiss charges, support a request for release from jail, or recommend resolution of a case. She gives an example of an individual who had pending warrant requests for low-level misdemeanors — but was also making strides with LEADD.

"Instead of slapping them with two new cases that would involve going to court, taking time away from school, work, treatment, and costing money, we’re going to deny those cases," Robbins says. "Everything happens in context, and we can look at that context and figure out how we can help people as they’re trying to make changes."
Washtenaw County Sheriff's Deputy Katelyn Garlick, LEADD Program Coordinator Hailey Richards, and Deputy Gabriel Bechtol.
Meanwhile, both Garlick and Richards say they’ve noticed more trust between community members and law enforcement. For Garlick especially, LEADD has alleviated the frustration of knowing someone needs help and not having the right resources. 

"There are a lot of officers who want to help, especially here in Washtenaw County," she says. "LEADD has just been fantastic. It’s streamlined things, simplified things, and it’s easier for deputies to access. I think it gives them confidence when they talk to people, to say, ‘We can help.’"

*Name changed to protect the individual's privacy.

Brooke Marshall is a freelance writer and recent transplant to Belleville. She first visited Ann Arbor on a cross-country bicycle tour; you can read that story (and more!) in her first book, "Lucky."

LEADD team photo courtesy of Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office. All other photos by Doug Coombe.