Justice grant for $898K hailed as game-changer by county exec

ALBANY COUNTY — A federal grant announced Friday will help people who might otherwise go to jail improve their lives instead.

The United States Department of Justice has awarded $898,000 to reinvigorate the Albany Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, known as LEAD.

The award comes at a time when Albany has been suffering from a spike in gun violence.

Based on a program that started in Seattle in 2011, LEAD allows police officers to divert from arrest three categories of people: homeless people, people with drug issues, and people with mental-health problems.

The award also comes at a time when police departments across the nation are rethinking their strategies in the wake of George Floyd’s death. In New York State, governor Andrew Cuomo has required each police department to work with its community in coming up with a reform plan, due by April to maintain state funding.

“The Movement for Black Lives has created an opening to radically rethink how American communities pursue public health, order, safety, and equity,” says a statement on the website of the LEAD National Support Bureau. “The call to dismantle our nation’s endemic over-reliance on policing and the legal system has moved from the progressive edge to the center of public policy debates in many communities.”

Albany County’s executive, Daniel McCoy, hailed the award as a “game-changer.”

“I have been talking for months about being involved in the process of hiring a new leader for LEAD and this will give that leader, Brian Hawley, nearly a million dollars to balance public health, criminal justice, and community engagement to directly address communities disproportionately impacted by opioid abuse and crime,” said McCoy in a press release, announcing the funding.

Albany’s LEAD Program was set up in 2016, one of the first in the nation, and has resulted in 215 diversions so far, 125 of which are still actively receiving case management, according to the release.

Those 215 people, rather than being arrested by police — typically for low-level drug-related crimes — were instead put into programs to help them, for example, overcome addiction or find housing.

“Albany County departments provide many of the services LEAD uses and this money is a game-changer during a financially challenging time and one in which mental health and addiction issues have increased,” McCoy continued.

McCoy thanked his staff for “working so hard to get this grant” and said he looks forward to working with LEAD partners, including Sheriff Craig Apple, District Attorney David Soares, Mayor Kathy Sheehan, the City of Albany Police Department, the Center for Law and Justice, and the Central Avenue Business Improvement District as well as Catholic Charities and the LEAD National Support Bureau.

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