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Diversion program aims to help offenders in Fort Smith

by Thomas Saccente | January 3, 2021 at 4:04 a.m.

FORT SMITH -- A new program has opened in the River Valley that is intended to address underlying issues that cause people to commit certain misdemeanors and reoffend.

The Fort Smith Police Department and the Fort Smith-based nonprofit behavioral health agency Harbor House Inc. launched the Fort Smith Pre-Arrest Diversion Program on Nov. 9. The program is designed to reduce recidivism and allow those in need to get help, with the Police Department saying that it gives police officers the discretion of diverting those who commit eligible, minor misdemeanor offenses away from the criminal justice system.

Daniel Grubbs, captain in the Police Department's uniform patrol division, described the program as the "evolution of police work."

"It's not always about punishment," Grubbs said. "It's about determining what an underlying cause is, and health professionals, us as professionals, have basically come to terms that a lot of petty thefts or drug usage -- a lot of minor, low-level, misdemeanor-type crimes -- are driven by either some type of addiction or some other type of issue."

"So a diversion program is what's really better for the person that's committing these type of low-level crimes. You know, does this person need treatment, or is there another means to get them help to solve this problem to where they do not continue doing certain crimes like that?"

Ashley Reynolds, court and diversion coordinator for Harbor House, said the addressing of underlying issues is why this program has been successful elsewhere in the country.

"We're not just ... giving [somebody] fines, or throwing them in jail or prison," Reynolds said. "We're addressing the underlying issues, why they offended in the first place. That's the way to really reduce recidivism because the data's out. Incarceration is not a deterrent when there's substance abuse disorders or mental health disorders that are the underlying issue. It's just not doing anything but leading to an overworked criminal justice system, and it's ruining peoples' lives."

The program, Grubbs said, is essentially a tool that Fort Smith police officers can use whenever they want. They are not mandated to use it, but they have the option to employ it on a case-by-case basis, with individuals being able to choose whether to participate in it as well.

Grubbs said that if an officer finds someone committing one of the eligible offenses, then the officer may conclude afterward that some underlying issue, such as addiction, may be causing the person to do it. If that happens, provided the suspect meets certain requirements and is willing to go through with the program, then the officer could carry out the appropriate report as usual but also give the suspect a referral form and the victim a waiver to give their approval for the department and Harbor House to try to help.

"And then we complete all the reports like we normally do," Grubbs said. "We submit something, we email Harbor House to let them know: 'Hey, we encountered a person. Here's the circumstances. They should be reaching out to you within 72 hours.'"

"And if they proceed with the treatment, then we allow them to, hopefully, better their life, and we move on and we clear out that case. If they don't, [Harbor House] will email us back and let us know this person did not, and then we proceed with charges."

To be eligible for diversion through the program, individuals have to be 18 years of age or older, not at risk to themselves or others, have no prior sexual or violent offenses, and have committed a certain misdemeanor offense, according to a Police Department news release. This includes possession of marijuana paraphernalia, disorderly conduct, misdemeanor possession of marijuana, misdemeanor criminal trespass, misdemeanor theft of property, misdemeanor criminal mischief, minor in possession of alcohol and solicitation of prostitution.

Reynolds said that, depending on the needs of the diverted person, Harbor House can provide mental health, substance abuse and behavioral health treatment. It wants to target to the specific offense.

Among the organization's resources in Fort Smith are a residential treatment center to address substance abuse-related issues and a behavioral health clinic, with it also providing outpatient services. This would all come at no cost to the participant.

This program, according to Reynolds, would typically last for 90 days.

"We also have programs with Fort Smith District Court, the community court program, and so that would sometimes be up to 16 weeks," Reynolds said. "We work with [the Division of Community Correction] with probation and parole, and that would be up to 16 weeks. But we wanted to make this a little bit shorter of a program, and when they would sign up with us, we get them connected with a recovery coach, who's a substance abuse counselor ... and we help them change life directions."

However, despite the program being in place for more than a month, Grubbs said the Police Department had not diverted anyone through it as of Dec. 18. He said that when the ongoing covid-19 pandemic began hitting the area, the department devised an operation plan on how to proceed. It had to minimize contacts and arrests as the case numbers went up.

"So even in a lot of circumstances, if a person or if charges can be filed at a later date, we typically ... would obtain warrants," Grubbs said. "If it was somebody that was violent, that needed to be arrested at that time, we would do it, but we limited arrests to only those that are absolutely necessary. So just kind of across the board, we're almost in an ongoing diversion program because we're facing a pandemic that nobody that's alive has witnessed."

Grubbs said that although the program is something new that the department can use, it has not yet done so "just by the sheer virtue of current climate." The department is hoping that "some type of normalcy" will take place that will bring more circumstances for it to use the program.

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