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County seeks new court diversion program

Everyone makes a mistake.

And according to Clallam County law and justice officials, sometimes jail isn't the best way to ensure first-time offenders stay away from crime.

Coupling the realization that nonviolent offenders may need help with their problems rather than jail time with the fact that the Clallam County court system is stressed for time and money, county officials are beginning to look into earlier treatment methods for defendants.

The Clallam County Superior and District courts already have programs in place to facilitate treatment, including drug court, family court and sentence diversion programs for some accused offenders such as minor drug users, thieves or small-time troublemakers or vandals.

But while the programs are successful in rehabilitating those possibly on the brink of a life of crime, the defendants still are required to go through the court system routines, which is a stress on them and a stress on the system.

In order to alleviate those stresses, officials including Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict and Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly want to make the diversion program available for defendants before seeking a resolution in court.

"Oftentimes it can take a year or more to get things settled in court, which could even result in diversion, the same program this change would provide to the defendants," said Benedict.

"So if we provide diversion to nonviolent offenders before they enter the court, it could make the system run smoother, assuming we can get restitution and time given back to the community from the defendant in light of the charge they would face in court."

When defendants sign a diversion contract, they oblige themselves to a supervised program that monitors their behavior and actions while directing them to treatment, community service and ultimately to a mind set that allows them to accept responsibility for their behavior while rectifying their actions.

If the defendant completes the program, no conviction occurs.

"Our present diversion programs have been successful and my office is in full support of expanding on that to include pre-filing diversion opportunities," said Kelly.

The project is especially aimed at offenders in District Court. Kelly has one prosecuting attorney in the District Court system, which handled about 2,200 cases in 2007.



Details

Details still are being worked out for pre-filing diversion but officials have an idea of what the program would look like and are estimating its startup costs.

Benedict said defendants would not be required to participate in the program and still would be able to take their case to trial. However, if they are willing to take responsibility for their actions without formally pleading guilty to a charge in court, they can participate if the prosecutor's office thinks they qualify.

"Those who qualify would include those with charges that qualify under the diversion program already set up and possibly a few other charges," Kelly said.

The program concentrates on first-time offenders who have nonviolent charges, such as a minor in possession of alcohol, a minor theft, malicious mischief and possibly possession of 40 grams or less of marijuana.

"Anyone who would be considered a threat, someone who has repeatedly been in the system or anyone with a drinking-while-driving-related offense would not qualify for this program," Benedict said.

The program is approved by the court but is administered by a private agency called Friendship Diversion, which coordinates diversion contracts for seven counties in the state, including Clallam.

Friendship's Clallam representative Ronnie Wuest said the organization is on board for any expansion of the diversion service.

Clallam County administrator Jim Jones said the program would cost the county some money up front for startup costs but would save the county and its cities in court costs within six months.

"I'm working with Deb (Kelly) on this for a budget change that you will review in future budget meetings," Jones said to Clallam County commissioners on Nov. 3. "It would involve giving the prosecutor's office support for three to four months to get things going, then with the saved time and costs expected from the program, the office would be able to carry on with it on its own."

The expense could be to hire a paralegal to review charges before they go into court and offer those defendants an opportunity to enter the program. Once those cases are not on the docket and once prosecutors finish cases already in the system, they will have time to do that work themselves.





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