LEAD offers alternatives to jail time

By Patsy Nicosia

Hoping to get a buy-in from Cobleskill businesses—and the Cobleskill PD—LEAD representatives detailed the help-instead-of-jail effort Thursday at a Chamber of Commerce-hosted event. And it’s an idea worth exploring, Chief Jeff Brown, one of those looking for more information, said afterwards. “We’re definitely considering it,” Chief Brown said. “It’s a very intriguing program and I think it could work here. I still want to discuss it with the [Cobleskill Village] board and get their thoughts, but we’ve been looking at it for the last couple of months, and I like what I heard.” Sheriff’s Investigator Bruce Baker came across LEAD—Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion—a couple of years ago and in January, law enforcement signed the papers to make Schoharie County the first rural participant in the country. Thursday, Investigator Baker and others who’ve worked with nearby Albany County’s LEAD shared the nuts and bolts of the diversion effort with about a dozen Chamber members and businesses, explaining that the problems caused by poverty, addiction, abuse, and homelessness are impossible to solve with jail. “No one wakes up and chooses to be a heroin addict,” Investigator Baker said, “but in law enforcement, that’s been our only option. “What LEAD lets us ask is: How did they get there? What are their needs?” with the answer to the second question maybe something as basic as a GED. LEAD matches qualifying low-level offenders with caseworkers—locally, through Catholic Charities—who in turn, helps connect them with services they can use to turn their lives around, explained Keith Brown from Albany, who helped train Sheriff’s deputies in LEAD through the KATAL Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. “These things are messy and complicated,” he said. In a nutshell, LEAD is a pre-arrest program; instead of arresting an offender, an officer can match him or her with a case manager—if both the offender and the person the crime was committed against agree. The crime needs to be low-level and related to issues like substance abuse, mental health, and poverty; offenders can’t be murderers or registered sex offenders and need to be cooperative. “You can say no,” Mr. Brown told the crowd--often the first question he gets when he makes a presentation. Investigator Baker said he’s seen LEAD successes firsthand, using the example of a local homeless man who “did a complete 180,” when he realized he was being offered some options late one Saturday afternoon: a hotel room and bus tokens to he could get to Catholic Charities on Monday. “All it took was one phone call to DSS,” Investigator Baker said, because the pieces were already in place. Though both Mr. Brown and Investigator Baker said they’ve heard grousing that the people LEAD helps are getting a free ride, Investigator Baker said it’s considerably cheaper than the $80 a day to board an inmate at the Albany County Jail “plus two deputies, plus fuel, plus a defense attorney…” With three caseworkers and a supervisor, Albany County can handle about 185 diversions a year, Ms. Ellis said; with one fulltime on-call case manager, Schoharie County can handle about 25. “With this, life becomes manageable…” Investigator Baker said. “Before, it was bracelets or bars and that was it. That didn’t work. This does.”

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