Salt Lake County’s mayor and top prosecutor announced a new program Tuesday to keep low-level criminals out of the courts.

At a news conference, Mayor Jenny Wilson and District Attorney Sim Gill, both Democrats, said the plan would allow people with little criminal history and who commit certain nonviolent misdemeanors and even some nonviolent, low-level felonies to avoid courts by cooperating with caseworkers to address underlying issues.

Rather than land in court on a drug possession or shoplifting accusation, for example, prosecutors would forgo filing charges if the suspect goes to mental health or substance abuse treatment.

Suspects with longer criminal histories, but who otherwise would qualify for the program, could enter into an agreement with prosecutors after criminal charges are filed. The suspects could enter into a plea in abeyance — effectively a form of probation in which the criminal charge is dismissed afterward — while addressing those underlying issues.

There’s even a program for defendants who would have qualified for the first two programs, didn’t enter into them and then was convicted. Gill said prosecutors will work with the defendants and, with a judge’s approval, develop an alternative to jail or conventional probation to address the underlying issues.

“This program,” Gill said, “tries to reduce those that actually enter the flow of the criminal justice system.”

He estimated 750 to 1,000 defendants could enter into the program during the 12- to 18-month pilot program. Gill and Wilson said they hope the program becomes permanent.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill listens as Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson talks about the new diversion program for low-level offenders during a news conference Tuesday, July 30, 2019.
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Wilson said the new alternative could address something she’s heard from inmates in the Salt Lake County jail — that one bad choice put them behind bars.

“These aren’t hardened criminals,” Wilson said. “These aren’t people that end up in a situation that threatens society.”

Who would qualify for diversion?

  • Diversion in lieu of charges — Offenders judged to be low risk who have a minimal criminal record, accused of nonviolent misdemeanors or a third-degree felony that will not require making restitution, who has no other criminal cases pending and who has no substantial substance use history. Suspect also cannot be charged with driving under the influence nor sex offenses. Diversion at this stage takes four to six months to complete.
  • Diversion after charges filed — Largely as the previous group but can be slightly higher risk. Defendants charged with crimes requiring restitution also can qualify. Diversion at this stage takes six to nine months to complete or 12 to 36 months depending on when in the legal process the diversion begins.
  • Diversion after conviction — Violent offenders don’t qualify, but otherwise the criteria is much wider than in the other two steps. Offenders of any risk level and with many criminal convictions can qualify. A judge will have to approve the defendant entering the program. Completion occurs as fast as defendants can meet their conditions, which can vary from case to case.

The process of sending people down an alternative criminal justice track is known as “diversion.” Cities and counties across the country have tried it in recent years to reduce the costs associated with the convention methods of prosecuting crime. The Utah County attorney recently announced his own diversion program.

“There will be no criminal charges that will be filed against these individuals, but rather they will be given an opportunity,” Gill said of the Salt Lake County plan.

The program comes as law enforcement continues to police Salt Lake City’s homeless population through Operation Rio Grande. Gill said those offenders could benefit from the program.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A homeless man who was reported by a restaurant along North Temple for exposing himself when he urinated in the flowers in front of the business and is eventually arrested, is later restrained with The Wrap when he kept unbuckling his seat belt and placing himself upside down in the back of the patrol car. Members of the west side policing bicycle squad patrol Glendale and Rose Park with an emphasis along North Temple where they have seen an increase in criminal activity following Operation Rio Grande, nearing the halfway mark.

Wilson said the new diversion program will rely upon the availability of treatment options for substance abuse and mental illness and full Medicaid expansion for Utah would help provide that. Utah could soon expand Medicaid, which provides health care to the poor, further after recent news that the Trump administration planned to reject Utah’s more-limited expansion plan.

“What we now need are resources,” Wilson said. “The full Medicaid expansion will fund the treatment beds that are necessary.”

The Utah Legislature has been reluctant to fully expand Medicaid out of concerns about costs and whether the federal government will fund its share of expansion in the decades to come.

Molly Davis, a policy analyst at the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute, which has been a proponent of criminal justice reform, issued a statement supporting Salt Lake County’s pilot program.

“Allowing individuals to avoid criminal prosecution," Davis said, "by pursuing this alternative route through the justice system is an excellent way to help them better their lives early on while saving time and money for both participants and taxpayers alike.”

Tyler Ayres, a criminal defense attorney in Draper, said he supports the efforts of Salt Lake and Utah counties to try to reduce the number of people who have criminal records. He said modern criminal histories “last forever” because of computers.

“What a lot of people don’t realize,” Ayres said, “is things like renting an apartment or getting a checking account all depend on your criminal history.”