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.
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.