Key Things to Know about LEAD for Sex Workers


  • LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) for sex workers is NOT a voluntary, non-arrest, no jail program as proponents suggest. It is NOT an alternative to the criminal justice system.
  • LEAD programs authorize police to refer sex workers to a treatment program or go to jail. Once referred to LEAD, a sex worker has to complete an “assessment intake interview” – effectively a registration scheme for sex workers.  In Seattle (where the LEAD program is hailed as a model) if s/he “refuses or fails within 30 days from referral  . . . to complete the follow-up intake assessment, the Prosecuting Attorney’s office and/or the City Attorney will be notified“ and can “decide to file a criminal charge and prosecute the offense that was initially diverted to LEAD”. LEAD is touted as a collaboration which includes community advisory representatives and the Public Defender Association but it is the Prosecutor’s office and the City Attorney who “retain ultimate and exclusive authority to make filling decisions in all cases and to recommend dispositions and support or oppose release motions as they deem appropriate”.
  • Information given to LEAD is not confidential. In Seattle, participants must sign waivers allowing the program staff to discuss their cases with the “other institutional partners at LEAD” and is also used “to discuss possible withdrawal of program support from participants who are not making effective use of the opportunity”.
  • Even if you are not referred to LEAD, you are still put on a list. Police officers keep “an ongoing log containing the names, dates of birth, and incident numbers of all individuals who are otherwise LEAD-eligible”.
  • Circumstantial evidence can land you with a referral to LEAD. There are two sorts of referrals and both are based on the discretion of law enforcement or other designated people with no accountability about what they decide: 1. A pre-booking referral where police believe there is “probable cause” for arrest, and 2. A social contact referral against “individuals perceived by officers as a high risk of arrest in the future for prostitution or drug offenses”. A social contact referral can also be based on information from “a professional or credible community members”. So it will be a sex worker’s word against the cops or some anti-sex worker resident with Black, trans, immigrant, low- and no- income people targeted.
  • LEAD has been accompanied by police crackdowns against street based sex workers. In Seattle, hundreds of people were swept off the street and into LEAD by a four-month police and FBI undercover operation to clean-up downtown.
  • Funding for California LEAD is likely to fund anti-sex work forces. Law enforcement and non-profits which have been hostile to decriminalization and key opponents of sex workers’ struggle for justice and rights will be likely recipients of some of the $15 million that has been allotted for LEAD in California.
  • LEAD undermines the independence of services for sex workers which become dependent on referrals and “partnership” arrangements with police. Yes, sex workers want resources – affordable housing, welfare, living wages, support for mothers and young people, for a start. And free, confidential and independent services.  But sex workers refuse to be humiliated and patronized as a victim or offender by well-paid professionals or referred by police to get access to those services.
  • LEAD for sex workers goes against the demands of the growing sex worker movement internationally for decriminalization. It is promoted as a “first step” and as more palatable and practical than decriminalization. Yet decriminalization, modeled on legislation introduced in New Zealand with verifiable improvements in sex workers’ safety and rights, has won support from prominent organizations such as Amnesty International, UN AIDS, UNFPA, UNDP, WHO, Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, Human Rights Watch, The Lancet medical journal, and Open Society Foundation. In the US a bill to decriminalize was introduced in New Hampshire, ongoing initiatives to increase the criminalization of sex work have been defeated and a legal challenge to the laws was mounted in California.


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