Whatcom prosecutor hopes new program helps divert strain from criminal justice system

A program that Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Richey says could help improve community health and safety and reduce strain on the criminal justice system received the funding it needs to begin operation early next year.

The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday, Oct. 2, that it has received a $900,00 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice through the Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Site-based Program.

That $900,000 will fund a new LEAD, or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, program for three years, Richey told The Bellingham Herald.

“The grant helps us get the program up and running and find out what type of positive impact it will have on our community,” Richey told The Herald.

The LEAD program allows law enforcement officials to connect people with treatment options when they’re arrested for certain drug crimes or other charges before they are booked into jail and instead of entering the criminal justice system. Richey said those who divert into the program will be referred to as “clients,” not “defendants.”

Diverted clients will be taken to the Whatcom County Triage Center or to their home, Richey said, depending on the nature of their drug or mental health treatment and the plan their social worker sets for them to stay in the LEAD program.

King County in 2011 created a similar program, which Richey said will serve as a basis for Whatcom County’s program.

“Simply put, this is something that happens in the field, before people go to jail,” Richey told The Herald. “If a law enforcement officer sees someone committing a crime, they can give them the opportunity for treatment rather than go to jail. More typically, people have a desire to get treatment if we can get them connected right away.

“We will have caseworkers on staff basically 24-seven to speak with a person in need of treatment and help them get set up and get the help they need.”

In addition to connecting drug and mental health treatment to those who need it, Richey said the LEAD program should lessen the strain on Whatcom County’s criminal justice system, which includes an aging jail battling overcrowding issues.

Richey said the program also will work hand-in-hand with Whatcom’s already in place GRACE (Ground-Level response And Coordinated Engagement) program — a community-based effort to offer intensive, coordinated assistance to those frequently using crisis services and law enforcement in ineffective ways.

The grant, which Richey said stipulates that Whatcom’s LEAD program be fully implemented by March 1, will allow for the hiring of three social workers for three years.

The Prosecuting Attorney’s office, which will oversee the program, and other agencies will assign resources to help support the program, Richey said, with no additional cost to the county’s residents.

“This grant is making it happen in the least painful way possible,” Richey told The Herald. “There’s nobody locally that can complain about the funding or the expenses. The Department of Justice people stepped in and helped us get it going.”

Between now and March 1, Richey said the focus will be on the program’s policies and procedures, “to make sure we are diverting the right people away from the criminal justice system and still protecting our community.”

Once those policies and procedures are set, Richey said all law enforcement officers in the field will be able to use them to determine who should be offered diversion.

Richey said he has not yet specifically talked to every law enforcement agency in the county about the LEAD program, but he was confident all would be supportive.

Wednesday’s release stated that the LEAD program has the support of Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo; Whatcom County Council Member Barry Buchanan; Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws; Whatcom County Public Defender’s Office; Whatcom County Health Department; Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville; Bellingham Chief of Police David Doll; Bellingham City Attorney’s Office; LEAD National Support Bureau; Chuckanut Health Foundation Executive Director Heather Flaherty; Sea Mar Community Health Centers; Cascade Medical Advantage; Whatcom Community Detox; Community Member Lisa McShane; and the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Guy Occhiogrosso.

“The sheriff’s office looks forward to participating in the LEAD program that will offer, where appropriate and safe, options and inducements for treatment,” Sheriff Bill Elfo said Thursday in a post on the sheriff’s office’s Facebook page. “We will work with the prosecuting attorney on this diversion program that will contain necessary assurances of accountability and public safety.

“I supported the grant and am working with Prosecuting Attorney Richey on implementation.”

Richey said he’s not yet sure what type of impact the LEAD program will have on Whatcom County’s incarceration, charging and arrest rates, though it was a pillar during his campaign for office last fall.

“I think everything we do is something,” Richey told The Herald. “It’s been surprising to me how Whatcom County has had such a large reduction in incarceration during the first six months of this year. That’s been from a number of small things, but together they all add up.

“I don’t have a number on how it (the LEAD program) will impact our community, but I have to think it will be significant. ... I can’t tell you how excited I am to get this moving. I knew we would get it going, one way or another.”

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.