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Diversion Programs Are For Cops

(Photo by Flickr user Javier Morales)

There is significant debate within our sex worker community about whether LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) programming, a pre-booking diversion program for low-level drug and sex work related offenses, is a good or bad thing. The first LEAD program launched in Seattle, Washington in 2011, with private funding from the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Vital Projects Fund, and several others. This pilot program has been championed by law enforcement and drug reform advocates alike and has since launched in several other cities, with slight regional variations—just this Monday, the Baltimore Sun ran a story about the launch of a three-year pilot LEAD program in that city which Police Commissioner Kevin Davis framed as a response to Baltimore’s proposed police reform agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. A recent evaluation of LEAD programs, conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, yields seemingly impressive outcomes for the communities they allegedly serve. Indeed, LEAD programming even names “sex workers” and “drug users” as their “consumers”—a rather misleading label for those in state custody, implying agency where there is none. In truth, LEAD programming does not serve sex workers or drug users, or those profiled as such. Rather, LEAD can be understood as a diversionary program for law enforcement officers and should be analyzed under this lens.

Diversionary programs like LEAD represent the co-optation of harm reduction lingo in the service of criminalization masquerading as social services. While we may rejoice at terms like “sex worker” and “people who use drugs” being used by institutions who typically use other, nastier language to describe these populations, the population they are actually talking about is people living in poverty. Programs like LEAD, which claim to provide case management, public housing, and job training, don’t target drug users and sex workers, as most people who do drugs or trade sex have those needs met. Many, if not most, sex workers and drug users have the social and economic capital to get high or make money in private homes, apartments, or rented rooms in areas that are not under constant police surveillance.

So why do poor people, many of whom lack economic capital because of deliberate, targeted U.S. policies, need a diversionary program? They don’t. Cops do.

Many sex workers I have talked with about LEAD think it is a good way to get desperately needed housing or medication or other necessities, things which traditionally fall under the category of “fundamental human rights.” But we must consider what is gained and what is lost when private funders like Open Society Foundation and other progressive grant-makers support programs in which individuals achieve access to fundamental human rights as a consequence of crimes they may or may not have committed.

LEAD reinforces the logic that people who are trading sex or using drugs need intervention from law enforcement, even if that intervention is a “softer” redirect towards social services. Do we? Increasingly, the answer, as supported by research, is a resounding no.

As prohibitive policies against drug use and sex work are repealed and replaced, law enforcement workers are looking for ways to stay relevant in the lives of those they have hunted, abused, and marginalized for the past few decades. The LEAD National Support Bureau, made up largely of law enforcement, publicly acknowledges an “urgent crisis of mass criminalization and incarceration,” and yet advocates for, well, more police. The logic of LEAD is not much different from that of “community policing,” which made strategies like “stop and frisk” and “broken windows” household names, and redirected billions of tax payer dollars to the justice department and away from education, infrastructure, and health care. Advocates of these policies fail to realize that the issues they want to address, like drug use, are hardly a matter of police and community relationships. Rather, the root of these issues lies in the systematic disenfranchisement of targeted communities.

(Photo by Flickr user IceBone)

The metrics used to evaluate LEAD speak to the values of its advocates, who include law enforcement and professional helpers who are willing to collude with them. Recidivism rates and public spending tend to be popular measures of the program’s success for advocates to point to. Evaluation data demonstrates that LEAD programs do reduce recidivism for those charged with low level misdemeanors, which saves everyone money because our massive prison industrial complex is quite expensive. But there was no data on quality of life for the “consumers” in the recent evaluation, because their welfare is measured in how they affect the rest of the population, not according to their own articulated needs and objectives.

I have no doubt LEAD “works” by its defined metrics, but the creators and funders of LEAD need to understand that they are not replacing McGruff the Crime Dog’s accusatory finger with a bear hug. There are law enforcement officers who work in districts now offering LEAD who have been allowed to do significant harm to people simply because they are accused of doing drugs or sex work–both judicially and extra-judicially. Vague “quality of life” regulations like “loitering” enable police to profile individuals, especially women of color, as sex workers. The legacy of police violence against sex workers is well researched and well documented, as many police abuse their power to demand sexual service (i.e. rape) or money. LEAD programming does not right these wrongs. In fact, diversion programming often simply further burdens “consumers” with open criminal records and time-consuming mandatory classes.

Still, I truly believe most pro-LEAD advocates want the best for sex workers and people who use drugs, as much as they can imagine them as people who deserve these things in non-coercive settings. I am not sure they can. This is not because they are bad people, but because the prohibition of sex work and drugs has created a discourse to talk about poor people without talking about economic inequality, but rather in terms of adaptive behaviors deemed criminal. That’s why it’s important to consider how LEAD is funded, and whom it actually supports. Currently, its funding has yet to go to any drug users’, sex workers’, or poor people’s rights organizations, programs, or advocates.

Even if we believe that there are services we need law enforcement to help us access, what still remains a missing aspect of this diversion program is accountability for past behavior by the state and its actors. As it stands, law enforcement in LEAD localities is getting millions of dollars to fix an overburdened and expensive criminal justice system that they helped create. Meaningful reforms of the criminal justice system should mean that funding goes away from this system, not towards it. This also should mean that law enforcement, individually and institutionally, is held accountable for their legacy of violence against sex workers and people profiled as such. There are fantastic models of sex worker-led programs globally that address criminality, public health, and police violence, like Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) in West Bengal and SWEAT in South Africa—who are sustained by the same funders as LEAD. Indeed, we must ask ourselves what it is about U.S.-based sex workers—or U.S.-based law enforcement—which renders programming that looks so very different.


  1. Hat tip to Titsandsass for covering this topic.

    The following 2 video’s are enlightening. The committee hears testimony that the cops are forcing minors to have sex under threat of arrest, and the committee ignores these concerns and assures everyone that they will use “good cops” and then they start handing out money. There is 32 million on the table in CA for LEAD programs.

    LEAD A DIVERSION from real solution: DECRIM. Cops sexually abusing under FAILED POLICY

    SB1110 CA LEAD law enforcement assisted diversion testimony

    In 2016 when we had the conference call with LEAD, they admitted that the majority of their funding goes to pay the saleries of case workers, and yet LEAD case mangers have no real services to offer.. They are using the same services that anyone can access by dialing 211, the list of public shelters and food bank and medical referrals etc. None of these LEAD services are going to pay your rent or feed your kids, or pay for day care, or pay your car insurance or put gas in your car, or create jobs that pay a living wage, or provide access to a free higher education. The women who are caught up in LEAD are dumped into public shelters or drug rehabs and then abandoned to live in extreme poverty.

    Yet they are now calling the 211 referral system a nationwide infrastructure. I hope any one that is caught up in the LEAD arrest to peddle fake services scam, will rate their rescue at http://ratethatrescue.org/


    This is another awesome read. When services allow organizing, trafficked workers win


    So with that in mind Coyote RI is currently applying for funding to open a halfway house for “people involved in the sex trade who are fleeing violence” This safe house will organized and run by sex workers and not the rescue pimps.

  2. It often seems to me that those promoting solutions from the liberal side ultimately care more about the appearance of a solution, than if it works, while, on a fundamental level, those “allies” they garner on the conservative side, (or who step in to mess with what ever system we attempt to create to fix a problem), suffer from a continual delusion that you can scare people into changing their behavior, that its always the victims fault for failing to avoid the consequences, and that the enforcement of the law is **more** important than its actual intended purpose. I.e., they are more concerned with whether or not someone complies, than with whether or not it solves the problem, because they think 100% compliance, regardless of unintended consequences, will solve the problem.

    These two delusional views are flip sides of the same coin – “If everyone complies, the problem will go away, but since not everyone is complying, we need to work harder to make them comply.”, vs., “If we just try to help people, and really really believe that we are helping, the problem will solve itself, without us needing to bother to make sure the solution we came up with actual works.” The attitudes play against each other quite well, sadly. The left gets to hate out off the rails the solution gets, as the right mucks with it, while the right gets to point out how often the solutions fails, and need more law, legislation, and enforcement, to “fix” the failures. That the real problem is that the solution is wrong, and fixing it by either doubling down on enforcement, and/or changing the programs to they are heavily in favor of laws, instead of directing them more to helping, won’t work. But, none of the people “backing” the solutions, from either side, seem to want to see this (especially if a more effective solution is foreign, and thus not “American”, else.. we, as in the government and other groups involved, would be embracing some of the solutions from around the world, instead of sneering at them.)

    Someone, at some point, gave both sides of the political powers in the US half of the wrong map, and its sending them both wandering off, when they try to do anything, in entirely dysfunctional directions, when ever a problem needs to be solved.

  3. Thank you for this article. I spent some time researching both LEAD and sex worker diversionary programs in the criminal justice system (reports forthcoming…hopefully this year) and I want to respond to a few things:

    “Advocates of these policies fail to realize that the issues they want to address, like drug use, are hardly a matter of police and community relationships. Rather, the root of these issues lies in the systematic disenfranchisement of targeted communities.” –To this I say YES YES YES! All of these programs try to fix things that wouldn’t be an issue in the first place if we just had a better social safety net in this country (better schools, extension of foster care past age 18, more graduated social welfare programs, some or any focus on housing for the poor other than emergency shelters, etc…). Too bad no one wants to fund this type of programming and US taxpayers see anything like this as handouts (even if middle-class and upper class folks get tax breaks from the gov., social welfare programs go through the political wringer for getting the same or less gov. money).

    “LEAD programming does not right these wrongs. In fact, it often simply further burdens “consumers” with open criminal records and time-consuming mandatory classes.” –While this is definitely the case with traditional diversion programs, this is less so the case with LEAD because individuals do not have open charges, nor do they interact with the judicial system at all. They must meet with a case worker to do an intake after their arrest or they end up with an arrest on their record. There are not mandatory classes or requirements past this one interview. BUT if they are in LEAD they can still get arrested and processed through the judicial system for subsequent/other charges.

    “There are fantastic models of sex worker-led programs globally that address criminality, public health, and police violence, like Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) in West Bengal and SWEAT in South Africa—who are sustained by the same funders as LEAD. Indeed, we must ask ourselves what it is about U.S.-based sex workers—or U.S.-based law enforcement—which renders programming that looks so very different.” –I ask myself this all the time–why is sex worker funding/programming in the US either absent or completely enmeshed in the CJS? How do we begin to foster empowerment and activist based programming here? Where is this conversation and why is it absent?! How do we untangle this conversation from the human trafficking movement? I could keep going. How the US handles sex work in both policy and programming never fails to fascinate (and frustrate) me.


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