Prosecutor: Diversion program saves system money and time

First-time felony offenders can avoid convictions by repaying victims and completing program.

“The whole goal is to make the community safer by more effectively managing our case load,” Wilson said.

The number of felony cases coming into the prosecutor’s office each year can distract the department from focusing on the most serious cases, Wilson said. Having a felony diversion program to separate lower-level offenders will help keep serious cases the top priority.

The first-time felony offender diversion program was made possible through a nearly $98,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and costs Clark County taxpayers nothing, according to Wilson. The grant lasts for 18 months and can be renewed if the county can show the program is effective.

Diversion Coordinator Sandee Selner said, “We’re saving tax dollars by reducing defender costs and holding accountable lower-level offenders.”

Wilson said the program also saves money in court costs and time spent by probation officers on other cases.

Offenders who participate in the program pay a supervision fee, which helps cover the administrative costs for the prosecutor’s office, Wilson said. The criteria to participate in the program is strict.

The diversion program is only available for first-time felony offenders. Those who have committed a violent crime, sex crime or drug offense are not eligible. Wilson said he would love to include drug offenses in the program, but statute doesn’t allow for it.

Before an offender is accepted into the program, a letter is sent to the victim and the arresting officer in the case, Wilson said. It explains the program and asks if they agree that the offender should be allowed to participate. While a person’s acceptance into the program doesn’t ultimately hinge on the opinions of the victim and the detective, it’s an important bit of information to have.

“It’s given great weight,” Wilson said. “We listen.”

The program also requires an initial screening by the prosecutor’s intake officer and Selner. In that screening, the offender has to admit to what they did wrong.

The “confession” is held and the charge is not pursued, if the offender completes the program successfully.

The program requires drug tests — which participants pay for themselves — and similar requirements to someone on probation. Participants also have to pay restitution to the victims.

Currently, the program has 19 participants, 70 percent of which are women.

Selner said the most common crimes that offenders have committed are receiving stolen property and forgery. The office hopes to have 50 cases in the program each year.

“I expect by the end of the year that we’ll hit that 50 number,” Wilson said. “That’s 50 cases that didn’t jam up common pleas court.”

Wilson hopes the program helps his department focus.

“The benefit for us is it allows us to more efficiently address the more serious offenders who are not in diversion,” Wilson said. “The benefit for the people in the program is they basically get a second chance.”

One of those people getting a second chance is 25-year-old Cheyenne Northington. She started in the program in May after her arrest for theft earlier this year.

“The program is kind of like a safe haven for me,” she said. “My attorney told me about it and I said, ‘Let’s jump on it.’ ”

The program requires monthly meetings with Selner with drug screenings and a restitution payment, Northington said. Twenty hours of community service are required as well, and Northington is set to begin her hours after the birth of her son.

Participants are monitored for 12 months and undergo random drug screenings if there is reason to believe substance abuse may be an issue, Selner said.

Having the option of the program was a blessing, Northington said, because she had no prior record and multiple jobs at the time of her arrest.

“Honestly, I don’t know where I would be if I wasn’t in the program,” she said.

Programs for felony diversion have proven beneficial in some contexts, but the success is largely hinged on the participants and the types of programming offered to them, Ohio State University Moritz College of Law Professor Doug Berman said.

“There needs to be an effort to make sure the program is tailored to the unique needs of classes of offenders,” Berman said.

The physical, social and emotional realities that a short prison stay — which some first-time felony offenses carry — can often prove to be a trigger for re-offending, Berman said.

“A lot of communities in Ohio and nationwide have come to recognize that prison may do more harm than good in terms of re-offending than we wanted to believe in the past,” he said.

That was a key reason why Northington decided to participate. One of the factors in her decision was the disruption for her children. Northington has a 5-year-old daughter and gave birth to a son July 30.

“I was looking at a lot of time,” she said.

The effectiveness of keeping program participants from re-offending will only be determined by time, but perfection shouldn’t be expected, Berman said.

“You can’t expect to get a perfect record of no recidivism; you may just get a lower record,” he said.

Berman said the savings in prison costs are also a benefit in a time where more and more prisons are crowded and costs of incarceration are high.

“Prison is a very expensive way to deal with low-level criminal offenses,” he said.

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