Spat over LEAD budget appears to be sorted out

Over the past month an ongoing disagreement over the budget for the LEAD program flared up again, as Erica Barnett has been reporting for the last several weeks, but as of late last week it seems to be getting resolved.

To fully understand what’s been happening, we need some context on the journey that LEAD has been on.

LEAD is an arrest diversion program focused on low-level drug and prostitution offenders who would otherwise cycle in and out of of the criminal justice system. It provides case-management to help clients get legal assistance and access to housing and other human services. It works in partnership with the Seattle Police Department, King County Sheriff, Seattle City Attorney and King County Prosecutor, who refer people into the program as an alternative to arrest, criminal charges, and probably incarceration. The program began as a pilot program in 2011 funded through private organizations and foundations. In 2015 and 2016, a series of rigorous evaluations of the program were done by a research group at UW and Harborview Medical Center, looking at:

The evaluations found that LEAD participants had 60% lower odds of arrest during the six months following enrollment in the program compared to a control group. Over the long term, while there was no effect on the total number of misdemeanor charges filed, the LEAD participants had 39% lower odds of being charged with a felony. LEAD participants had 1.4 fewer jail bookings on average per year after enrollment, and spend 39 fewer days in jail per year compared to the control group. LEAD participants were twice as likely to be sheltered, and 89% more likely to obtain permanent housing; there were also 46% more likely to be on the employment continuum (training through employment and retirement), and 33% more likely to have income and/or benefits.

As a result of these studies, the Seattle LEAD program became recognized as a successful model for an arrest-diversion program following harm-reduction principles. It attracted national attention, and several other cities have since copied the program with the help of the LEAD National Support Bureau.

Source: LEAD National Support Bureau

Locally, Seattle and King County took over funding for the program, and have continued to grow and expand it: Seattle’s finding is used within the city limits, and King County’s for services in the rest of the county. Among the City Council members over the last two years there has been a push to expand LEAD’s geographic focus beyond the downtown core to the north end of the city and other crime hot-spots, and eventually city-wide — which of course requires a dramatic expansion of the program’s budget and funding.

Source: City of Seattle

However, demand for the program, and the number of referrals coming into the program, has left the team drowning in work. The team takes referrals from SPD at the time of arrest, but also “social referrals” both from SPD and from local businesses and community members outside of the formal criminal justice process. As of the end of 2019, LEAD had about 800 enrolled clients and a backlog of another 300 waiting to be enrolled. But the overload on the LEAD program is actually much worse than that: the program was designed with an expectation that a case manager would carry a caseload of about 20 clients in order to give each of them sufficient attention, but as of December LEAD’s 19 case managers had caseloads that more than doubled that target. LEAD’s managers calculate that in order to right-size the caseloads, clear the backlog, and continue to take new referrals (a critical part of the program), the number of case managers would need to grow from 19 to 73 over the course of 2020. Other support and supervisory staff positions would need to be added as well.

Source: LEAD

This came to a head last fall as the Mayor and Council began to work on the city’s 2020 budget. The Mayor’s proposed budget increased LEAD’s city funding by about $300,000 to $2.5 million (on top of the $3.7 million the program receives from King County). But in a presentation to the Council, LEAD’s Lisa Daugaard argued that another $4.9 million would be needed to fully fund the program. The Council members were big fans of the program and responded warmly to that budget request — though some recognized that with all the other pressures on the budget, it might be difficult to find the full amount.

But then in late October, Senior Deputy Mayor Mike Fong sent a letter to the Council effectively saying “slow your roll,” and pointing out some of the weaknesses and “drift” in the LEAD program that deserved greater scrutiny. Among the issues that the letter asserts:

  • At the time, LEAD didn’t track sufficient data and statistics related to its clients necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of the program as a criminal justice diversion program, including arrests by police officers, filings and court appearances, and subsequent interactions with jail. It’s worth pointing out that LEAD staff don’t have access to all of that data, so addressing this would take cooperation from the city and King County.
  • 70% of LEAD participants were experiencing homelessness at the time. During their time enrolled in the LEAD program, 41% of participants began substance use disorder treatment, and 12% began mental health services. LEAD doesn’t track ongoing participation in those programs, nor the outcomes.
  • There isn’t a clear basis, in the city’s view, for the uniform 20:1 target caseload for LEAD’s case managers, given the diversity of clients, the issues they need assistance with, the shift from arrest-referrals to social referrals, and the needed skill sets of case managers. In fact, it might be that case managers working with chronically homeless clients, or those in substance-abuse treatment programs, should have a different caseload than other LEAD case managers.

Other questions about the program exist; for instance, whereas 91% of LEAD enrollees in 2012 were arrest diversions, last year only 6% were — the rest were social referrals from SPD and the community. Together this raises questions about the nature of the program: is it still fundamentally an arrest-diversion program, or more generally a program to reduce criminal recidivism? Since a strong majority of its clients are experiencing homelessness, is it a homelessness program? Likewise, since a large minority are dealing with substance abuse, is it a substance-abuse program? To some extent it’s all of the above; but it certainly raises difficult issues with determining which metrics should be used to measure the level of success of the program. And that was the key assertion in Fong’s October letter to the Council: if the city is going to dramatically scale up the program to address the perceived need, it needs to get clarity on the goals of the program, the intended client base, and how to measure success before it writes a contract and a big check to LEAD. Fong said that the Mayor’s Office and the Human Services Department intended to hire a consultant to “prepare an assessment of LEAD’s program model and its alignment with the program’s mission and theory of change”:

“Among our topics of interest are referral protocols, best practices in behavioral health services for a similar population and case management practices, and, perhaps most importantly, how is success defined and measured for participants, the community and the criminal justice system and LEAD’s feedback loop for ensuring continual process improvement.”

He also noted that the Seattle IT department was building a new database system for the LEAD program that would allow it to capture necessary data on its client base.



In spite of these warnings that the Mayor’s Office thought there was more work to do to fully understand the program, the Council found $3.5 million more to add to LEAD’s budget, with the Ballmer Group committing to cover the balance to fully fund the program in 2020.

In late December, the city signed an $86,000 contract with consultant Bennett Midland to conduct an assessment of the LEAD program. It envisioned a rapid eight-week study, with the first month heavy on data gathering, and the second month involving site visits, interviews, and analysis. The actual timeline has been stretched out, with site visits now planned for early March and the final report in May.

In late January of this year, the City Council got word that HSD had not yet completed a contract with LEAD for 2020, raising fears that the Mayor’s Office was resisting the Council’s intent to fully fund LEAD. Its fear was not without some justification given Fong’s October letter — and also not entirely without precedent given the long delays in the Center City Connector streetcar project earlier in Mayor Durkan’s term, which a super-majority of the Council strongly supported, due to the Mayor’s Office’s desire for additional studies. On January 28, the Council, led by Council member Herbold, sent a letter to the Mayor asking for her commitment to providing the additional $3.5 million for LEAD, as well as requesting that the contract be completed by March 1.

Tess Colby, who is Mayor Durkan’s special assistant for homelessness issues, emailed a reply to the Council members attempting to clarify some issues but without directly answering the Council’s concerns. Colby’s email introduces the notion of splitting LEAD’s contract budget into two phases: a “phase one” in which LEAD hires additional staff to right-size their caseloads; and a “phase two” after Bennett Midland finishes its assessment that fully addresses “updated performance measures recommended by the report and informed by its data evaluation tools.”  Colby also acknowledged that LEAD had submitted a budget proposal, specifying monthly ramp-up of staffing, which was being discussed with HSD. “With quick work by both sides,” Colby said, “we will be ready to execute the contract.”  Colby’s email did not commit to funding the full $3.5 million, nor did it specify whether the two phases would be separate contracts.

Two weeks ago, Council members heard reports from LEAD that a contract still had not been executed, and that “phase one” was shaping up to be different from what Colby had communicated earlier. In particular, HSD had apparently told LEAD, as Erica Barnett reported at the time, that “phase one” would provide funding for right-sizing the caseloads and clearing the backlog, but it would not fund capacity for accepting any new referrals — that would need to wait for “phase two.” This again raised alarms with the City Council, who sent another letter to the Mayor last Tuesday reiterating its demand for answers to its earlier questions and a commitment to fully funding LEAD and get a contract done by March 1.

On Friday, the Mayor’s Office intervened directly, with representatives speaking to both LEAD and Council member Herbold’s office to clarify the situation. They committed on the Mayor’s behalf to providing the full $3.5 million to LEAD, and said that there had been miscommunication on their intent for the two phases. According to a spokesperson for the Mayor’s office, there will be one contract with LEAD for all of 2020 that includes the full funding, including right-sizing the caseload, clearing the backlog and accepting new referrals, with baseline performance metrics in place at the start of the year that the city and LEAD will revise after the Bennett-Midland assessment is delivered. The Mayor’s Office provided a lengthy statement to SCC Insight Friday afternoon on the state of funding and contract negotiations with LEAD:

Mayor Durkan and HSD are committed to develop a strong suite of programs that serve as an alternative to incarceration and effectively promote public safety, justice, and community wellness. LEAD is an important program in that arena.  The Mayor had previously supported increasing LEAD’s budget and supported Council’s proposal to add additional resources to LEAD.  With a growing need in our community, LEAD has grown exponentially in a short time frame and has been able to serve many in our community. The City has worked with LEAD to develop key programmatic data and help build a data base. 

The City fully expects to contract to LEAD for $6.2 million in services and has been working for months collaboratively to receive important information such as their budget. The City has continued to progress towards a contract and conduct the City’s due diligence as part of our regular contract process. As with any contract, HSD is working closely with LEAD to develop both the appropriate budget, reporting requirements, and performance measures for the contract.  Last week, the City received the final detailed budget proposal from LEAD that outlines its proposal to reduce caseloads, reduce the backlog, and accept new referrals. 

The City believes in accountability and transparency for its contracts. Since last August, the City has worked with LEAD and have agreed upon key reporting requirements that will be part of a contract including:

    • Active and inactive clients
    • New referrals including arrest diversion and social contact
    • Frequency of meetings with clients and client load
    • Assessment of recidivism
    • Assessment of housing placements
    • Assessment of individuals for behavioral health and treatment referrals

Understanding adjustments will be made in the contract later this year, HSD is working to finalize is $6.2 million contract and send it to LEAD within the next two weeks. As LEAD scales its program in 2020, the City will continue working with them on updated outcomes and an overall consideration of caseload levels.

Data we obtained shows the vast majority of LEAD clients (94%) are no longer arrest or criminal justice diversions – in 2012 the vast majority (91%) were arrest diversions. With more clients who are experiencing homelessness and/or who have behavioral health needs, the City wants to ensure caseloads are not imbalanced with respect to management of existing clients and incoming referrals. While not a homelessness or behavioral health program, the connection between behavioral health, housing stability and criminal justice involvement requires the City to ensure clients are receiving appropriate services. For example, clients who have behavioral health challenges or who lack permanent housing may need more intensive case management including meeting with a case worker more frequently than once every 90 days. LEAD is committed to working with SPD, HSD, and the Mayor’s Office to ensure this alignment while continuing to serve both current clients and new referrals.  

We expect Bennett Midland report to be completed by May to then allow the City to work with LEAD to update its contract with deliverable outcomes and help SPD create a more consistent process on referrals for social contacts. In the meantime, we will continue working closely with LEAD on developing a common understanding of the pace of referrals and the intensity of services and case management needed to fully address client need.  

LEAD, the City Council and the Mayor are united to ensure LEAD and its clients are set up for success and outcomes, especially as we use the opportunity to scale the program.

The Mayor’s spokesperson confirmed to SCC Insight that the city, after some iterations, has received a final budget proposal from LEAD that resolves all of the city’s questions. It’s unclear whether the contract will be complete by the Council’s target date of March 1 (because lawyers) but it appears that they will be close.

When asked for comment on Friday’s outreach from the Mayor’s Office, Daugaard said:

“We’re awaiting a contract and there are some loose ends, but the gap is closing. Our conversation was about moving into a new phase, in which we join forces to make use of LEAD in all appropriate cases and places, while working together to identify resource gaps in what we can offer participants, and ways to enhance those supports. That would be a resolution we’d embrace with enthusiasm, and we’re more than ready to get to work! I hope this is how it plays out.”

Council member Herbold, when asked for comment Friday afternoon, was similarly optimistic: “I learned that my staff spoke with the Mayor’s office this afternoon and I see the message coming out of the Mayor’s office to Council moments ago confirming what appears to be good news.”

If you find SCC Insight’s reporting valuable, please take a moment to make a contribution. Thanks!