ANN ARBOR – The Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office has partnered with Ann Arbor’s 15th District Court to create a new pre-plea diversion program in certain misdemeanor cases.
Unlike conventional diversion programs, eligible defendants will be able to enter the program before entering a guilty plea. The Probation Department will develop an individualized plan with participants, serving as diversion specialists.
That plan may include mental health treatment, restitution to victims, substance-use treatment, counseling and/or therapy depending on the circumstances under which the defendant entered the criminal legal system.
For participants who successfully complete the six-month program, the Prosecutor’s Office will dismiss charges outright and the individual will not be required to enter a guilty plea.
According to the Prosecutor’s Office, the program was developed to help defendants in certain misdemeanor cases avoid entering a guilty plea, which can have lasting effects on an individual’s life.
“People who plead guilty to a crime may be unable to secure housing or jobs, and noncitizens may face immigration consequences,” reads a release.
The program is believed to be the first of its kind to not require a guilty plea to access probation-type services in the state of Michigan.
“People often find their way into the criminal legal system because they are dealing with substance use, mental-health issues, or poverty,” Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit said in a release. “Yet too often, we require a guilty plea to provide people access to resources.
“Entering a guilty plea can have devastating real-world consequences for people. This unique program will help people get back on track, without the far-reaching consequences of a guilty plea.”
Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Victoria Burton-Harris, who helped spearhead its formation, will supervise the program. Burton-Harris said she hopes the program will help prevent worst-case scenarios that she’s seen happen across the criminal legal system.
“I have watched defendants plead guilty with the hopes of a later dismissal, only to turn around and lose everything – their job, housing and sometimes even their ability to stay in this country,” Burton-Harris said in a release. “Eli and I don’t want that to happen on our watch.
“If we truly want to stop people from cycling through our criminal legal system, we should be smart and address the root cause of the reason they entered it.”
Savit said his office is committed to rehabilitation within the justice system.
“I’m thankful to our partners at Probation in the 15th District Court for working with us to rethink how we can best promote public safety and well-being,” Savit said in a release. “This was a co-created program. I’m so grateful that we’re all working together in Washtenaw County to create a fairer and more equitable justice system.”
Approximately 150 people are expected to participate in the program now through the end of the year. Defendants will be eligible depending on what type of misdemeanor offense they were charged with. Those charged with child abuse, domestic violence, drunk driving and stalking will not be eligible for the program.
The Prosecutor’s Office hopes to expand the program to other courts in Washtenaw County following an evaluation of the initial phase of the pre-plea diversion program in the 15th District Court.