CLEAN SLATE: New diversion program offers another option to court

Published 5:21 pm Saturday, September 6, 2014

Even minor infractions become part of a criminal record, but for those heading to court in Beaufort County, a new program may just keep the slate wiped clean.

It’s called CAP (Community Accountability Program), a diversion program launched last week by Second Judicial District Attorney Seth Edwards. The program is part of a service offered by Corrective Solutions, a for-profit company in California, that allows those charged with some nonviolent crimes to avoid the court system and its steep costs. Better yet, Edwards said, completion of the program means a person’s future success will not be hampered by a past criminal record.

“It’s a way to take the low-level nonviolent cases out of the courts, while at the same time offering a diversion program to them,” Edwards said. “If they complete the program satisfactorily, they’ll end up with no criminal record.”

Edwards is the first DA in North Carolina to implement the program. Corrective Solutions, however, partners with 140 prosecutor offices spanning several states. Currently, its largest client is Orange County, Calif., the sixth most populous county in the U.S.

“I think I’m the guinea pig in North Carolina. … Corrective Solutions has been talking to a lot of DAs across the state, but I kind of think they’re waiting to see how Seth does,” Edwards joked.

What’s no laughing matter is that taking these cases off the caseload of local prosecutors will free up time and resources that can be spent elsewhere, according to Edwards. Worthless checks, possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of a certain amount of pills (controlled substances), underage possession of alcohol, simple assault, simple affray, driving with license revoked — all fall under the low-level nonviolent crime determination that would make someone eligible for CAP.

Depending on the crime of which they are accused, people enrolled in CAP could be required to do community service, check in with a supervisor, undergo drug testing and/or participate in courses aimed to modify criminal behavior, just as they would if they went through the court system and were put on probation, according to Edwards. The program isn’t free, but neither is being on probation — those convicted of crimes must pay for probation services. However, Edwards believes the benefits of the program are worth its cost.

“There is a cost associated with it. I guess the trade-off is there’s no conviction. You’re not on probation, so there’s no possibility that they’re going to jail (because of a probation violation),” Edwards said.

An example of CAP eligibility would in the case of someone who wrote a worthless check. Edwards said often the people accused of the crime end up in a cycle of nonpayment and court appearances that drive up court costs and eat up the courts’ time. Rather than enduring that process, a person who’s written a worthless check can volunteer for CAP through the Corrective Solutions’ Beaufort County representative, Summer Rogers. A worthless check writer would pay restitution for the worthless check, then $40 a month for the duration of the two-month program, perform four hours of community service and, perhaps, take an accountability class. In exchange, that person wouldn’t have to pay court costs, nor would he or she have a conviction on their record.

All low-level nonviolent offenders are not necessarily eligible for the program, Edwards said. Some minor past convictions are allowed, but past felonies are not.

“At this point, I’m not requiring a spotless clean record,” Edwards said.

A person is also prohibited from enrolling in CAP if he or she has been enrolled in the program within the last 24 months.

The program represents a savings of resources for both prosecutors and probation officers and, other than Edwards’ time overseeing the introduction of CAP over the next few months, will not cost the state any money. Overall, the benefits outweigh any drawbacks, according to Edwards. But there are a few drawbacks: there’s a chance it may impact the number of clients seeking the services of defense attorneys and it may foster the perception that the local DAs office is soft on crime.

“One of the fears of the defense bar is that this is taking away clients from defense lawyers. I don’t see that. I think it will be another option for them to use with their clients,” Edwards said.

For Edwards, CAP is one solution in a court system that continually faces budget cuts despite an increase in case filings. By allowing an outside source to take over part of the caseload, the local courts are freed up to tackle the more serious and violent cases, and offenders, he said.