DA’s Office says new enhanced diversion program could serve up to 50 people in first few months

photo by: Meeting screenshot/Douglas County Commission

Members of the Douglas County District Attorney's Office explain its porposed enhanced diversion program to the County Commission during a meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. The program aims to provide more oversight and structure in the diversion process to help people facing criminal charges to stay on track and have their charges dismissed.

A new diversion program from the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office that aims to serve as another alternative to incarceration in the local criminal justice system could initially help dozens of people stay out of jail.

Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden told the County Commission on Wednesday about a new enhanced diversion program the office is developing. It could launch in the next few weeks and could serve up to 50 people facing criminal charges within the first few months of operation, which could lead to fewer people being booked into jail later down the road.

“The old fire and brimstone ways of locking everyone up is obviously not working, so we are looking at other options,” Seiden said. “We believe the enhanced diversion program will be a great start.”


Douglas County district attorney’s office to unveil new diversion program during County Commission meeting

Along with Seiden, District Attorney Suzanne Valdez and other county criminal justice staff unveiled their vision for the proposed diversion program during a County Commission work session, explaining the program aims to expand the office’s effort to divert people from the criminal justice system while still holding them accountable. It also aims to make the district court’s case processing more efficient and help decrease the amount of people who are booked into the county jail, which has faced overcrowding issues for several years.

They explained the program builds on the office’s existing standard diversion program, which largely leaves participants to their own devices, by providing more oversight and structure. The program will include a supervisor who monitors participant process and focuses on connecting participants to community services to help address issues that often lead to crime, such as substance abuse and mental health problems, among other things.

Seiden said the program will be “people-centric,” working with the participants to craft an individual diversion agreement that aims to help them address their needs to stay on track toward reformation. Like other incarceration alternatives in the county, those who complete the program will see their criminal charges dismissed.

The program may also allow people facing more serious charges — such as offenses committed using a firearm or involving bodily harm, distribution of drugs or sexual conduct — an opportunity to pursue diversion, which is generally not available. Seiden said the enhanced diversion program would consider those instances on a case-by-case basis.

Seiden also said the program will not come with a cost to the participant, which should make it more accessible. He noted similar diversion programs in other Kansas counties include an application fee, which can close off low-income people from the participating.

“We don’t want to be in a position where people who need these programs are being discriminated against because they can’t afford these types of programs,” Seiden said.

Noting she was happy to see a focus on alternatives to incarceration, Commission Chair Shannon Portillo, who has a background studying criminal justice, said research shows such programs have often disproportionately been closed off to people of color. She asked what the district attorney’s office planned to do to make sure the program is equitable.

Seiden, who served as a criminal defense attorney prior to his current position, said he was well aware of the racial disparities in such programs and the district attorney’s office wants to combat that. He and Valdez said the district attorney’s office is working to establish a database that tracks such information — whether an individual is granted or declined diversion through the program — to help address such issues.

Commissioner Patrick Kelly said he appreciated that data would be used, because it would help provide transparency and combat implicit bias in the decision making. Valdez echoed Seiden about the office’s awareness of racial disparity issues, and noted the office’s ongoing work with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, which is national network of governments that aim to advance racial equity.

“To put it simply, it is making sure people are with their families, in the community and working, and holding them accountable when we need to,” Valdez said of the program. “We’re trying to do it fair and we’re trying to do it equitably.”

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