Here are examples of decisions your district attorney faces every day. What would you do?
1. An 18-year-old is arrested for possession of heroin. This is a first-time offense for this person. What would you do?
Diversion programs allow a charge or charges to be diverted for an agreed upon amount of time once the defendant pleads guilty and agrees to conditions given by the judge. Once the diversionary period has been successfully completed, the charge or charges can be expunged, provided the defendant returns to court to request an expungement. [i]
People with arrest and conviction records are routinely blocked from getting jobs, housing, and educational opportunities by federal, state, and local legal restrictions because of these records. Around the country, there are nearly 50,000 such legal restrictions. The federal Higher Education Act of 1998, for example, makes students convicted of drug-related offenses ineligible for any grant, loan, or work-study assistance. These restrictions contribute to high rates of rearrest and reincarceration of people who have been released from prison but subsequently have difficulty obtaining an education or finding housing or jobs.
Those especially at risk of recidivism following their release from prison are individuals living with addiction. [ii] A 2011 study found that within three years of prison release, individuals living with drug or alcohol addiction had a recidivism rate of 45%. [iii]
2. A frequently unhoused person suffers from a serious mental illness and, in an episode of psychosis, they attack a pedestrian walking by. The attack results in an injury that requires medical intervention. What do you do?
Incarceration does not cure mental illness. Incarcerating someone with a serious mental illness only ensures that they are not in the public view. When they are released back into the community, the likelihood of them re-entering the jail system is almost inevitable. With convictions disproportionately affecting poor people and people of color, these sentences are also exacerbating extreme racial disparities in the criminal justice system and tearing vulnerable communities apart.
The goal of diversion is to reduce or eliminate the time individuals with mental health, substance use, or co-occurring disorders spend incarcerated by directing them to community-based treatment and supports.
People who suffer from untreated mental illnesses can stabilize with proper treatment and support. In addition, providing them with wrap-around mental health and supportive services is far more cost effective than incarceration — which almost guarantees recidivism. [iv]
3. A person with a felony drug conviction is released to probation and then gets an additional assault charge. This violates the terms of the individual’s probation. What do you do?
Re-entry is a formidable challenge for individuals leaving prison. Not only must they adjust to freedom and an ever-changing society after years or decades on the inside, they must also contend with numerous legal barriers to rebuilding their lives. These barriers limit their access to housing, temporary support via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), higher education, and employment — barriers that increase the likelihood that even the most well-intentioned returning citizens could recidivate and re-enter the prison system.
Even though the probation officer would be the one responsible for reporting the violation of probation, once the district attorney receives the case, they have the ability to reinstate probation with added intensive conditions or to argue to revoke probation and send the person back to jail at a hearing. At the hearing, additional requirements such as consenting to random drug screens and not testing positive for any controlled substances could be imposed; or probation could be revoked, forcing the individual to serve the remainder of their sentence in custody.
TDOC pays less per individual on community supervision than it spends per individual on incarceration. [v]
4. A 40-year-old person is arrested for stealing a car worth $10,000 and selling it to support their drug addiction. The car was eventually recovered and returned to the owner with minimal damage. The offender was arrested a few times prior for petty theft, but this is the most serious offense on their record to date. They suffer a debilitating addiction to opioids and frequently steal to support their habit. What do you do?
Drug addiction has become one of too many social problems that have been relegated to the criminal legal system. This band-aid approach of incarceration does not curb the use of controlled substances and certainly does not attempt to address any underlying factors driving addiction rates.
The consistent factors linked to opioid prescription abuse include unemployment, poverty, and occupations with high rates of injuries. [vi] In counties like Unicoi and Hawkins — which experience some of the highest unemployment and opioid prescription rates in the state — a 10% increase in opioid prescription correlates with a 0.1% increase in overall county unemployment rates. [vii]
Incarcerating someone for a lengthy period for a criminal act committed to support an addiction without consideration of the underlying problems driving the crime does not address the root causes of addiction, reduce the availability of drugs, or make our communities safer.
Addiction to substances like drugs and alcohol can ruin a person’s life and leave them with no other options than to turn to crime to sustain their living and support their addiction. Helping them get the proper treatment they need, rather than confining them to jail, is the most efficient way to increase the likelihood they will be able to lead a healthy and fulfilling life.
5. An 18-year-old is pulled over for not coming to a full stop at a stop sign. The officer asks the teen to step out of the vehicle after allegedly smelling marijuana in the teen’s vehicle. The teen passes the field sobriety test, but after searching the teen for possible weapons, 15 grams of marijuana and $300 was found in their possession. This is a first-time offense. What do you do?
Diversion gives an individual a second chance to learn from their mistakes, reduces the likelihood they will reoffend, and increases their opportunities to achieve long-term success.
People with felony conviction records are routinely blocked from getting jobs, housing and educational opportunities by federal, state, and local legal restrictions because of these records. Around the country, there are nearly 50,000 such legal restrictions. The federal Higher Education Act of 1998, for example, makes students convicted of drug-related offenses ineligible for any grant, loan, or work-study assistance. These restrictions contribute to high rates of rearrest and reincarceration of people who have been released from prison.