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July 21st, 2017

Changes in Criminal Justice

Editor,
Washington County residents and victims of crime should be aware of some major changes in the prosecution of misdemeanor, and some felony, crimes.

Gov. Scott signed Act 61 into law, which presumptively sends many cases to diversion. Currently, adult diversion is available only to persons charged with a first or a second misdemeanor or a first nonviolent felony.

Diversion is a state-wide, voluntary, program where a referred individual must agree to participate, accept responsibility for and be willing to address the harm caused. Successful completion of the diversion program allows for dismissal of the criminal case, and after two years from the date of dismissal, the record may be sealed.

Act 61 also expanded diversion to include adults with substance abuse or mental health treatment needs, regardless of the person’s prior criminal history record. “Listed offenses” and other major crimes such as driving under the influence, domestic assault, sexual assault, and burglary of a residence, are not impacted. However, crimes such as grand larceny, retail theft, unlawful trespass, simple assault, disorderly conduct, drug possession, and burglary into a non-residence, are within the expanded scope of presumptive diversion referral. If a prosecutor does not believe the case should go to diversion, he or she must state on the record why a diversion referral would not serve the ends of justice. An individual’s past criminal history is a factor but does not prevent the individual from going to diversion.

The Washington County State’s Attorney’s Office has traditionally sent many cases to diversion, and our partnership with the Washington County Diversion Program is strong. We have embraced the view that good people can make poor decisions, and look at the total person when resolving cases. As we adapt to this change we are mindful that many in the community will have concerns over accountability, recidivism, restitution and public safety. We will continue to assess all cases on their merit, and look favorably upon outcomes without incarceration when appropriate – e.g. deferred sentences, probation, or community restitution. Ultimately, in many cases it is imperative to engage individuals with treatment, rehabilitation and recovery support as soon as possible.

Act 61 also modified the pretrial screening of offenders. While this has the potential to bring important information about an offender to our attention, the legislature’s omission of “victim safety or risk of lethality in domestic assaults” when assessing “risk of re-offense” is concerning to us.

As these changes come into effect, we will work closely with our partners in law enforcement, other state agencies, community organizations, and our legislators to ensure we are able to effectively administer justice and address public safety. Our office’s commitment to crime victims is equal to our duty to ensure a fair process for offenders. We strive to reach outcomes for the community that reduce risk, while maximizing opportunities for rehabilitation. We expect challenges ahead, but our work toward a safer, healthier, and stronger community will go on.

Holly Leach, Victim Advocate
Rory Thibault, Chief Deputy State’s Attorney
Washington County State’s Attorney’s Office

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