Peninsula criminal diversion program catching on

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT ANGELES -- Clallam County's diversion program for nonviolent offenders has paid $88,497 in victim restitution and recovered $35,292 in court costs, Friendship Diversion Services Executive Director Barbara Miller said.

"You can see that just financially there is a strong advantage to having a program like this," Miller told the three county commissioners this week.

Since 2006, the Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney's Office has referred hundreds of misdemeanor offenders to Olympia-based Friendship Diversion in a program that Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly describes as "basically a private probation."

Clients charged with minor crimes pay $225 or more to enroll in pretrial diversion and serve time on electronic home monitoring.

"Except for the support for indigent clients on electronic home monitoring, all of the services that we provide, we provide at no cost to the county," Miller said.

The idea is to expedite the case backlog in the criminal justice system and save the taxpayers jail and court costs. Defendants charged with violent or sex crimes do not qualify for diversion.

"It's been pretty much a win-win program all along," Kelly said.

In 2009, Clallam County Superior Court ordered 57 defendants to 2,916 days of electronic home monitoring through diversion.

District Court ordered 84 defendants to 3,945 days of electronic home monitoring last year, according to statistics provided by Miller.

In a similar program, Friendship last October began accepting cases from the Clallam County prosecutor's office before charges were filed.

Precharge sanctions include drug and alcohol classes, anger management and community service.

After a client finishes the three-month program, Friendship sends a letter of recommendation to the prosecutor's office, which ultimately decides whether or not to press charges.

Clients who fall short in diversion are sent to jail.

"It's a way for an accused person to pay back the community and have the opportunity not to be charged," Miller said.

In Clallam County, 289 people logged 8,194 hours of community service for nonprofit agencies through the pay or appear program in 2009.

Clallam County Superior Court referred 94 defendants to pre-charge diversion last year and ordered 20,318 hours of community service in lieu of 2,471 days in jail. District Court referred 84 defendants to 4,549 hours of community service.

It costs taxpayers about $70 per day to house an inmate in the Clallam County jail, compared with the $13.50 shared cost of electronic home monitoring.

SDLqIf the defendant is paying $2 of that, then we only bill the county $11.50," Miller explained.

Precharge diversion started in Thurston County and has "spread kind of like wildfire around the state," Miller said.

"It allows almost no work time on the part of the prosecutor's office."

Friendship Diversion operates in nine counties and seven Washington cities with more jurisdictions "knocking on the door," Miller said.

Jefferson County


Jefferson County adopted a post-charge diversion program through Friendship nearly four years ago.

It is considering a pre-charge diversion program for certain cases.

Juelie Dalzell, Jefferson County prosecuting attorney, said she isn't convinced that supervision alone is effective.

She cited a 2006 study released by the state Institute for Public Policy that showed a zero effect on crime from intensive supervision and surveillance-oriented programs.

However, she said electronic home monitoring has proven to be effective in Jefferson County.

"It's working, in spite of my fears," Dalzell said.

The electronic bracelets have global positioning systems that keep tabs on defendants' whereabouts.

Meanwhile, the defendants can keep their jobs, get counseling or chemical dependency treatment.

To curb the rising costs of contracting with the county for district court, the cities of Port Angeles and Sequim are exploring the use of more diversion programs like electronic home monitoring.

"I think we've had some great success with electronic home monitoring," said Ronnie Wuest, Friendship Diversion branch manager for Clallam and Jefferson counties and the state manager for electronic home monitoring.

"We have seen some people make some really positive changes."

Clallam County Commissioner Mike Doherty has championed the diversion program and requested an annual progress report from Miller and Wuest.

He said diversion saves costs, opens jail space and helps would-be career criminals develop the skills they need to be productive members of society.

Friendship Diversion helps its clients learn basic skills, find employment or job training, Wuest has said.

Commissioner Steve Tharinger said diversion can break the cycle of crime and cuts law and justice costs in the long run.

"It just seems there's a lot of advantages to this program," he said.

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-417-3537 or at rob.ollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: June 10. 2010 12:12AM
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