A state-funded program intended to steer homeless people from the criminal justice system and into housing, addiction treatment and mental health care failed to meet its core mission after a two-year pilot in Honolulu. 

The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program was intended to give a choice to homeless people accused of minor crimes: Accept a criminal citation or cooperate with a caseworker who could refer them to services. For those who accepted assistance, the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s office would agree to waive the filing of the criminal charge. 

The problem is that the Honolulu Police Department and prosecutor’s office never got on board with LEAD, according to a program evaluation by a University of Hawaii researcher. 

Homeless people regularly receive criminal citations for infractions such as blocking a sidewalk. LEAD was supposed to turn these interactions into pathways to help. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“I think (the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s office) had other issues and didn’t want to work with caseworkers and, to some extent, the Honolulu police force in determining when and how someone might have their citation enacted,” said Jack Barile, the UH psychology professor who authored the review of the program.

“There was some buy-in with some of the police officers, but I was also told some of the other ones were not fully on board.” 

The program ran from July 2018 through July 2020. In the end, LEAD clients actually got more criminal citations after referral to the program, according to the UH report. That aligns with an overall sharp increase in homeless-related citations that HPD handed out last year. 

Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard did not respond to an interview request.

HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said in an email that officers have been involved with referring homeless people to services for years through the Health, Efficiency, Long-term Partnerships program, also known as HELP. HPD has also begun working with newly elected Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm’s office to discuss the next steps for LEAD. 

“The previous prosecutors’ administration did not support LEAD,” Yu said.

Former acting prosecuting attorney Dwight Nadamoto, who led the office during the LEAD pilot period, could not be reached for comment. Nadamoto ran for the prosecutor’s office last year on a “tough on crime” platform that promoted harsher penalties for criminals, especially drug offenders. 

LEAD was started in Seattle in 2011 and showed positive results that have become a national model. When people previously arrested for drug-related and prostitution offenses were diverted to services, they were 60% less likely to be arrested in the subsequent six months compared to a control group, according to a University of Washington evaluation of Seattle’s LEAD program.

Hawaii wanted to use that concept to help Honolulu’s homeless population. HPD often cites homeless people for infractions related to their homelessness, including sit-lie ban violations, illegal camping or obstructing sidewalks. 

But LEAD in Honolulu turned out to be a more traditional outreach program. The Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center, which got a $200,000-per-year contract from the Department of Health to run LEAD, directed homeless clients to services and is still working with LEAD clients, according to Heather Lusk, executive director of the nonprofit.

But the program wasn’t able to use the leverage of the criminal justice system to persuade hesitant people to join the program and stick with it. 

“There are folks that maybe originally wanted to be in LEAD but didn’t have that particular incentive, and they have fallen out of LEAD,” Lusk said.  

Heather Lusk press conference homeless count.
Heather Lusk, executive director of Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center, said LEAD showed some promising results, even without the full cooperation of law enforcement. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

In the end, 50 people were enrolled in LEAD, and their participation in case management yielded mixed results. 

Clients reported decreases in their use of emergency shelters, use of methamphetamines, visits to emergency rooms and hospital admissions. 

“One man who we met in Aala Park, he was in a wheelchair and couldn’t even stand up because of congestive heart failure,” Lusk said. “He’d been there for 17 years, substance use, smoking, lots of challenges. He got into LEAD. He’s now in permanent housing, in recovery for substance use (and) he stopped smoking through our program.” 

However, there were also increases in alcohol use and the number of “physically unhealthy days.”

Wookie Kim, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, said the goal of LEAD is still valid. Arresting people without addressing their underlying problems only creates “more harm, hardship and injustice,” he said. 

“It’s disappointing that the relevant stakeholders do not appear to have agreed on a way to move forward to make LEAD what it aspires to be,” Kim said.

Despite the lack of participation by police and prosecutors, Lusk and Barile still believe in the concept of LEAD. 

In his report, Barile recommends the continued expansion of LEAD in Honolulu and on the neighbor islands – in partnership with police departments and prosecutors. 

“With the potential cost savings associated with reduced hospital admissions and emergency room use and the decreased burden on the criminal justice system, this program will likely result in net savings as well as improving the lives of those (who) participate,” the reports states. 

Lusk said she’s spoken to Alm about pursuing LEAD as it was originally intended. A probation advocate, Alm often speaks positively about efforts to divert low-level offenders from prison into programs that can address their underlying challenges. 

Matthew Dvonch, Alm’s special counsel, said in a statement that the office is “taking a look at the LEAD program, why it never got off the ground here, and whether it’s something our office will ultimately pursue.” He declined an interview request. 

Lusk said it’s worth considering ways to help people in need that don’t involve the police at all. 

“There is talk about, well, why does law enforcement have to be the gatekeeper to these resources?” she said. “So we are looking at ways to continue to expand referrals if the traditional model doesn’t end up being implemented with the prosecutor or with HPD.”

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