A new criminal justice reform is coming to Ithaca, and it’s got the potential to shake things up. But from where I stand, it seems more likely to continue the status quo: keep black and brown people disproportionately locked up.

Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) is a concept that holds great promise. It promises to stop putting non-violent, non-threatening people through jail repeatedly for behaviors that stem from mental health issues, poverty, homelessness and drug use. It promises to save the county millions of dollars on jail funding that could be more efficiently spent increasing access to services centered on personal empowerment. And, critically, it promises to “reduce racial disparities at the front end of the criminal justice system.” It is this last promise that I’m here to question.

If you picked up The New Jim Crow during Ithaca’s community read last year, you might remember Michelle Alexander’s plea to us as readers: “The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.” 

The Tompkins County Jail admits and discharges 800-1,000 people per year, at an annual cost of $5.3 million in taxpayer dollars. More than three quarters of admissions to the jail are unsentenced, charged but not convicted, typically with misdemeanors or minor violations. Black people are incarcerated in the Tompkins County Jail at a rate six times higher than whites, relative to their respective populations.

The idea to start a local LEAD program was born out of the 2016 Ithaca Plan, a report commissioned by Mayor Myrick to address Ithaca’s growing opioid problem. In the decade preceding the report, opioid dependency and overdose deaths had more than tripled in Tompkins County. Ithaca police officers had begun to rethink their role on the front lines of what they could see to be a public health issue.

“It was law enforcement that led me to the conclusion that what we need to do is steer people away [from jail],” former district attorney Gwen Wilkinson shared at the first meeting of the LEAD board of directors this past February. “The police – they are the ones in the position to see how futile, how frustrating, how repetitious, and how harmful, our practices to date have been.”

So the police are on board. But it’s been clear from the start that they’re on board for a pretty specific vision of what LEAD can be and who it can serve. If you’ve followed any of the local news coverage on LEAD to date, you’ve probably come away with an understanding that the program is aimed at opioid users. Both police and policy makers’ statements in LEAD board meetings have also reflected a narrow focus on opioids.

To be clear, I do not mean to undermine the severity of the opioid public health crisis. I wish that we had not undermined the severity of the crack cocaine public health crisis either. As Alexander puts it in her book, “Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs.”

In my work as a racial justice activist in Ithaca, I collaborated with people of color in the community who have experienced the cycle of incarceration. To many of my colleagues, LEAD sounded too good to be true. Especially for those who have trouble imagining police officers empathizing with them, diversion just doesn’t seem a likely offer.

At a casual gathering in the Multicultural Resource Center this January, black community activists and re-entry program participants voiced skepticism about the LEAD program.

“This just isn’t gonna be for us.”

“You know what we call it? The criminal just-us system. No way we getting get out of jail free cards.”

The LEAD model has a built-in structure for community input: the Community Leadership Team (CLT). Fabina Colón, speaking from decades of experience working alongside marginalized people at the Multicultural Resource Center, has urged that “the community group needs to be diverse, trauma-informed, family-centered, and have a basis in racial equity. And to make a real difference it should have leverage, power and real decision-making input.”

The CLT is an opportunity for interested community members to step into the process of building and holding accountable Ithaca’s version of LEAD. But as Colón and her colleagues know all too well, the CLT won’t have teeth unless it demands them. Until then, the fate of the LEAD program rests with those who have the power to impact decision-making.

Travis Brooks, serving as co-director of the Ithaca LEAD program alongside Drug Policy Alliance’s Katharine Celentano, holds a unique perspective on the issue of racial equity. Even if LEAD maintains a narrow focus on opioids, Brooks thinks, the program could still eventually serve people of color. 

“It’s a matter of time,” says Brooks. “I think we’ll see more of our kids using. It’s in the lyrics already, if you listen.”

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