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Diversion program in Salt Lake County aims to help non-violent offenders get back on track, avoid jail

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Similar program already being implemented in Utah County

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SALT LAKE COUNTY (ABC4 News) – Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and Mayor Jenny Wilson Tuesday announced a new diversion program that aims to help low-level or non-violent offenders move on from their mistakes and avoiding formal charges.

“This program provides an opportunity (for a person) to not be defined by a mistake but a chance to correct and become a productive citizen,” Wilson told reporters.

The diversion program, the first phase of which will go live Aug. 1, helps low-risk offenders avoid formal charges upon completion of certain conditions. This pre-filing intervention phase is a four to six-month program that will impact an estimated 750 participants in the first year – potentially keeping them out of the criminal justice system.

“We recognize that mass incarceration requires not only reforming the criminal justice system but also innovative and creative ways to improve it,” said Gill. A second post-filing intervention phase will go live Oct. 1, dealing with more serious crimes involving restitution. Still, participants who undergo the six to nine-month program can have charges dismissed if they successfully complete it. Also on Oct. 1, a plea in abeyance program will start to help people with substance abuse needs. That program will last anywhere from 12 to 36 months. Charges can be dismissed in that phase once the participant enters a plea agreement.

“None of us wants to see non-violent offenders locked up,” said Mayor Wilson. “We know that many of our inmates in the Salt Lake County jail are there because of a bad choice as it relates to drug activity…use, primarily…and mental illness. These aren’t hardened criminals, these aren’t people that end up in a situation that threatens society; they are generally threatened themselves. “

Jennifer Gardiner works behind the scenes on ABC4’s assignment desk. Five years ago, a misunderstanding with a gift card led to a misdemeanor conviction which has followed Gardiner around for years.

“I got a notice in the mail that they had filed a charge for unlawful use of a financial card transaction,” said Gardiner, whose public defender urged her to enter a plea deal rather than fight the charge. “I currently cannot get a job with almost all companies that have transactions that require money.”

She said this type of diversion program would have helped her avoid the headaches her misdemeanor charge has caused her – and help her move on from what she said was an honest mistake and not a crime.

County caseworkers will help low-level offenders by assessing their needs and getting them help – rather than the county locking them up.

“We will work through a behavior change plan with them we will work on interactive journaling classes to kind of address the reasons why they are there,” said Jacqueline Lefferts, case manager with Salt Lake County Probation Services. “It’s going to be a short program; if they are successful with it, then charges will never be filed.”

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt implemented a similar program about a month ago. Leavitt is passionate about reforming the criminal justice system in his jurisdiction and said he’s encouraged by the response from participants, many of whom face citations and potential charges for non-violent offenses.

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt first started a diversion program to keep low-level offenders out of jail.

“We’re changing the paradigm, we’re changing the model,” said Leavitt. “Helping the offender does promote public safety. We started it here in Utah County, and to see Salt Lake County following our lead – that just gives me the feeling that what we are doing is making a difference elsewhere.”

Gardiner said her charge is currently in the process of being expunged, but she would have been grateful for a diversion program like this to help her not get charged in the first place.

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