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Open Society Foundations Announce New Investments in Innovative Drug Policy

New grants to seven communities working to promote alternatives to jail for drug use and addiction

NEW YORK—Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program is regarded as one of the most innovative drug policy programs in the country. Launched in 2011, the program allows law enforcement officers to divert people arrested for low-level drug offenses into community-based services instead of prosecution and jail. Early evaluations have shown that the LEAD program reduces recidivism and improves the lives of people who use and sell drugs. The Open Society Foundations were pleased to be among a group of six philanthropic groups to help fund the planning and implementation of this landmark effort.

Now, Open Society hopes to build on the LEAD program’s promise by seeding investment in prebooking diversion programs in seven other jurisdictions around the country, selected through a competitive process: Atlanta, GA; Bangor, ME; Camden, NJ; Fayetteville, NC; Los Angeles, CA; Milwaukee, WI; and Philadelphia, PA.

Open Society’s $1.4 million investment will help support the planning and development of local prebooking diversion models offering community-based, patient-centered health and social support services for substance use to promote mental and physical health as an alternative to incarceration.

“This is about more than just providing alternatives to jail,” said Kimá Joy Taylor, director of the Drug Policy Project of the Open Society Foundations’ U.S. Programs. “It is about improving the whole health of individuals, even if they are not abstinent, in ways that improve the stability of clients, their families, and their communities. Our hope is to help shift society’s focus from a criminal response to a social service response in dealing with public health challenges.”

The selection process began on April 6 of this year, with a request for proposal circulated by Open Society’s Drug Policy Project. The project received applications from 24 jurisdictions across the country, from which the seven were selected. In reviewing the applications, staff looked for proposals that were evidence-based, cost-effective, and offered the promise of sustainability over the long term.

Other criteria included the strength of the local coalitions capable of implementing and sustaining the program; a willingness to incorporate harm reduction principles into the diversion paradigm, and an ability to identify and access existing resources to move beyond the foundations’ investment and stand on its own in the years to come.

“The goal, in choosing these seven jurisdictions, was not to replicate Seattle’s LEAD program, but rather to encourage localities to develop prebooking diversion programs and services that are tailored to their own particular circumstances,” Taylor said.

“We hope this idea will spread, help change the way communities see their neighbors, and provide a health- and social-service response to drug use instead of a criminal justice response, ultimately leading to healthier communities in which all members are active participants.”


The Open Society Foundations work to build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens. Working with local communities in more than 100 countries, the Open Society Foundations support justice and human rights, freedom of expression, and access to public health and education.

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