DA diverts low-level offenders from court
Ninth Judicial District Attorney Sherry Caloia has recently faced stiff criticism from the Garfield County Sheriff and other law enforcement heads in for what they perceive as too much leniency toward criminals, among other complaints.
But the DA is standing by policies that she says got her elected in the first place.
Part of that philosophy can be seen in a diversion program she developed to give young, first-time offenders facing low-level charges a chance to get out of the court system.
Caloia’s diversion program started mainly to deal with young adults between 18 and 21 who were facing minor in possession charges.
“I’m very concerned about our young people,” she said. “One in three of our young men have some sort of criminal conviction by the time they’re 23. That seems like a very high number to me.
“I don’t think they need to go through the full-blown court process and have a conviction, unless of course it’s a real problem and they’ve been through the court system a few times for those charges.”
Caloia has said she sees herself as from the generation where cops took a kid home after finding him or her drinking in the park, rather than charging them.
The DA’s diversion program is a way to address the problems that young people have and not give them a criminal conviction, said Caloia.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be the DA’s office that runs the program, but no one else was doing it, she said.
“Youth Zone is running a similar program for juveniles under 18, but I’m trying to target the 18- to 26-year-olds,” she said.
If the deputy district attorney think they’re a good candidate – a first-time offender charged with a low-level, nonviolent crime – prosecutors offer the defendant the diversion program on their first appearance in court.
For the program, the DA’s office will consider young people facing charges like harassment, minor in possession, disorderly conduct or domestic violence that didn’t inflict injury.
Typically diversion will last three to six months. The defendant first meets with the diversion coordinator and draws up a contract based on the charges and the behavior that led to the criminal incident.
A $25,000 grant from the Colorado Judicial Branch, which the DA’s office has been awarded for the third year now, keeps the program going by paying a part-time diversion coordinator’s salary.
The defendant’s contract might include public service, substance abuse classes, random urine testing, restitution if they’d damaged property, a letter of apology, getting back into school or GED classes, or getting a job.
GOOD SUCCESS RATE
On average, the diversion program costs the defendant about $150 for the different classes and testing. It can be a little pricy for some people, but of course it will be cheaper than gong through court proceedings, said Caloia.
And the judicial branch has some money available for people who can’t pay for the treatment or urine tests, she said.
If they complete everything in their contract, the DA dismisses the charges.
And importantly, they walk away without any kind of criminal record, said Caloia.
“Most times it’s readily apparent who should get diversion and who shouldn’t.” The DA said her program boasts a very good success rate, with about 95 percent of the 60 to 75 people completing the program annually not returning with more charges.
Making that decision for people facing domestic violence charges is the hardest to determine, she said. “We don’t want to admit people who really are in a volatile relationship.”
A person who’s facing a domestic violence charge following a physically violent incident obviously shouldn’t get diversion, she said.
But Caloia admits some gray area with domestic violence.
“Various people will give you different definitions of domestic violence,” she said, “and many people don’t understand how easy it is to be arrested on a domestic violence charge.”
By state statute, law enforcement has no discretion in this matter. If there’s any evidence at all of domestic violence, officers are required to make the arrest.
A common incident that gets charged domestic violence is a husband or wife getting angry, grabbing their spouse’s cell phone and smashing it on the ground, she said.
‘SOMETIMES THERE’S TOUCHING’
Punching the wall, getting angry and smashing a cup on the ground, ripping the phone out of a partner’s hand (Caloia once saw a man arrested for throwing crackers at his wife) — all of these will be charged as domestic violence if the police are called.
Another woman spent the night in jail for getting upset and dumping a cup of coffee on the hood of her ex’s car, she said.
A shove could end up as a harassment charge, and if there’s no injury as a result, Caloia said she might take that person into diversion depending upon the situation.
“People will disagree with me, but a husband and wife or girlfriend and boyfriend will have disagreements. And sometimes there’s touching that goes on.”
To take the guesswork out of this process, the DA’s office looks to the defendant’s criminal history.
“We have to determine upfront whether this was a one-time event where someone got a little out of control and the police were called or if it’s indicative or a larger problem.”
“What we want is for the offender to recognize when he or she has gone too far.”
That decision is often reached through the victim, she said. The DA’s office requires the victim’s input. They have to agree to let the defendant go through diversion rather than pursuing charges.
“There are a lot of people out there, young people especially, who’ve done very stupid things attributable to immaturity and perhaps alcohol. Let’s address the immaturity and alcohol without giving them a criminal conviction.”