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//A Denver police officer at a Black Lives Matter protest over the summer, Photo by Esteban Fernandez |Este.Fdez20B@gmail.com

Denver City Council voted on September 16 to expand funding and renew the contract for the Empowerment Program, an agency in Denver that provides mental, behavioral and physical health services to women, to continue managing cases for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion project.

The goal is to reduce recidivism and offer people stuck in the justice system a path out by diverting repeat offenders of low-level crimes to people and programs that focus on a harm-reduction approach. The hope is to introduce stability by addressing the needs of the individual, without requisites for participation.

Kevin Kelly is Denver’s LEAD project manager and works to see the program’s participants receive the needed benefits that could include housing, food and clothing.

“Being a harm reduction-based program, we are not asking someone to stop what they’re doing,” said Kelly. “One of the main goals is to keep folks out of jail and, especially because our target population is often dealing with those behavioral health issues, that’s certainly something we hope for our participants.“

In some instances, a participant won’t be a repeat offender but will be at risk of adapting for survival. This was the case for Kelsea Johnson. 

In August 2019, Johnson gave birth to a baby boy. He was premature and had an intestinal infection, which became septic. The doctor treated and released her son and they took him home where he met his two siblings. Neither Johnson nor her husband were working. She was a stay-at-home mom and he was bitten by a black widow, resulting in an infection that left him immobile. 

“At this point we were still living in our house, but knew that it was coming, that the day was coming that we were going to be evicted,” said Johnson.

The following November the family was evicted. They moved into a motel off Colfax with few possessions including tools, clothes and Johnson’s car. 

They met a man, who was never named, that took an interest in Johnson. He would ask for rides, presumably for drug deals, she said. This man eventually requested that Johnson go with him alone, and treating her to meals and persuading her to leave her husband.  

“Throughout that period of time he got me away from my husband, literally made me go and kick him out,” said Johnson. “I swear part of it was getting me separated from my kids, too.”

The man would degrade her and hint at the idea of her prostituting for him. He paid for everything and offered her a place to stay—a piece of cardboard laid out on the hotel room floor—when things were dire. He demanded loyalty and secluded her from the world by taking her phone and paying for a room in a transportation desert. 

“It started with him saying, ‘I’ll pay for your hotel room, don’t worry, I got you, you’re my friend, I’m loyal to you.’ That’s a big thing, loyalty, loyalty, loyalty that he kept pushing,” said Johnson. “That was the part that stuck in my head, that I had to be loyal to him.”

He would tell her how the other girls would kill to be in her position and call her “queen.” This man took her car and proclaimed squatter’s rights and continued to compel her into prostitution. 

A mutual friend of Johnson and the man she was staying with would tell her she is at risk of being pimped out, and if she stayed, things would worsen. This was hard to believe because loyalty was so important to him, but with no home, no car and no income she stayed. 

“I remember just feeling this pit in my stomach, I had no clue,” said Johnson. “I just kept protecting him.”

This man left Johnson alone with his brother, who ended up raping her. The brother said, “my brother and I share everything,” and told her that to be Queen you need to listen. She covered her eyes with her hands and survived. After the man returned, he blamed her, questioned her loyalty and twisted what happened to make it seem like she caused it. 

“Survival. That was the only thing in my head was survival. I wasn’t about good things or happy things, it was just survival,” said Johnson.

She was eventually given the contact information for the Empowerment Program and left to stay with a friend while working to mend her life. 

Johnson was referred by someone from the Empowerment Program, but it mainly relies on officials in the criminal justice system and police officers for referrals. However, given the current climate around police, the responsibility of referrals will shift to community agencies. 

Devin Richards, the LEAD project manager for The Empowerment Program, has worked with the program for nearly two years and wants to move away from police referrals due to negative associations, which could be a disincentive for people wanting to participate.

“Typically that’s why we don’t go out with police officers when they are referring to us. We don’t want our participants or potential participants to think that we are police officers ourselves,” Richards said. “We’re trying to make those very clear boundaries that ‘hey, while we’re still getting referrals from police officers we are not police ourselves.’” 

LEAD first rose out of Seattle in 2011 as a response to the inequities against minority groups in the criminal justice system. It was introduced to Denver in 2018.

“As the program has spread, that’s been something that all the other LEAD programs have adopted,” said Kelly about the roots of LEAD. 

Now that there is an anthem for change repeating in cities around the nation, Denver has responded by honoring the roots of the program and the calls from the Black Lives Matter movement.

Although driven toward reducing recidivism and offering resources, LEAD has also dipped its hands into ordinance and law reform. Colorado has an ordinance that requires sex workers who are arrested to take an STI test or face punishment for non-compliance, which could include a warrant for not turning in the results.    

“It’s an old ordinance. It was written in the ‘70s and it’s clearly written to target sex workers, and in Denver that particularly affects Black women. Black women make up 24% of people who are arrested for buying or selling sex. So we saw that very early on and started to work to address that,” said Kelly.

The effort has the combined support of the Public Defender’s office, the Denver District Attorney’s office and The Empowerment Program, to name just a few. But repealing the ordinance is only the beginning for stakeholders and representatives in the LEAD project.    

“Where we’re coming in is really more along the lines of decriminalization,” said Richards. “And decriminalizing the issues that are more disproportionately affecting marginalized communities.”

Earlier this year, Chief Public Defender Alice Norman and attorney and research consultant Nathaniel Baca released a demographic study on the criminal justice system. The result was that Denver’s Black community is over-represented in low-level crime statistics. 

For crimes like interference and resistance, Black community members are in court 36% of the time and those who were found guilty receive jail time 75% of the time. For perspective, nearly 10% of the population is Black and defendants of other races who were found guilty receive jail time for the same crimes 43% of the time. All areas of the study reflect these disproportionate numbers. 

The study also looked at whether Denver citizens require too much from our police officers by asking them to intervene with mental health and behavioral issues.

The issue of police and criminal justice reform to reflect a more equitable system is a sprawling subject with many moving parts, but the LEAD program has begun to look at how change can happen soon and to our most marginalized community members.

“As long as we continue to criminalize the sort of behaviors and work that LEAD interacts with we’re still going to see this problem,” said Kelly. “What I mean by that is if sex work was decriminalized, sex workers would be far safer, they would enjoy the same workplace protections that somebody who works a white-collar job, like me, enjoys.”

Johnson was recently reunited with her kids and has her own place. The man she met still has her car, but it’s an issue she has let die.

“I can say because of LEAD, they’re actually trying to get me to this point of self-sustainability,” said Johnson.