October 26, 2020

About 60 persons who would traditionally face felony charges for non-violent crimes will be asked in coming days to take part in a special new diversion program initiated by the Jackson County Prosecutors’ Office, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker announced today.

The special offer, noted Baker, is being made, in part, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“With a criminal justice system slowed by the pandemic, this is a chance for these offenders to move on with a future,” Baker said.

Notifications will be sent to eligible individuals in coming days. Participants will be offered an opportunity to effectively wipe away that felony arrest if they complete the special diversion program, dubbed NewStart 2020.

 The Jackson County Legislature on Monday approved funding for NewStart 2020, about $67,000 in COMBAT funding for an estimated 60 individuals accused of low-level crimes like drug possession. NewStart 2020 is the first large-scale pre-file diversion program initiated in Jackson County. The county’s COMBAT Commission approved the proposal earlier this month, before sending it to the Legislature for final approval.

Jackson County residents are quite familiar with the concept of diversion. The Jackson County Drug Court is one of the nation’s oldest, with thousands of graduates who were persons charged in drug or drug-related crimes. Through Drug Court, they get a chance to deal with their drug issues, receive other types of help, and, in the end, move on with their life without the burden of a felony conviction.

Those cases, though, are diverted to Drug Court after charges are filed. That means a judge oversees the case. The entire process can take 12 to 18 months to complete. And that requires a significant amount of resources from the criminal justice system – judges, clerks, prosecutors, treatment counselors, public defenders and others. During a pandemic, Baker added, these resources are even more strained as schedules are stretched and often delayed.

This new program should reduce those resources, shorten the time for individuals to receive treatment and offer similar services intended to help the individual remake their lives.

In addition, this program will engage some strong community partners in this process. The program will run outside the courthouse, in the community center at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church, while treatment providers from Swope Health services will work with the clients. Private attorneys will represent each client.

No persons accused of violent crimes, including domestic abuse, or sex crimes will be eligible for this program. Persons who enter this new diversion program but fail to complete it will face potential charges after a review by the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office.