Three months into his term, St. Bernard Parish’s new district attorney has implemented a court diversion program designed to let some first-time offenders keep drug and alcohol charges off their record if they pursue counseling and treatment.
St. Bernard may be the last parish in Louisiana to implement such a program, after a wave of similar initiatives began taking effect around the state starting about 25 years ago.
The program, which has the support of the Sheriff’s Office, requires participants to undergo a screening and treatment as well as submit to drug tests. If someone participating in it slips up — say, by failing a drug test — the criminal case against him would instead move to trial.
It’s an approach that’s different from drug court, where a defendant pleads guilty to a crime and undergoes treatment if it’s found that drugs or alcohol played a role in the crime. Instead, the diversion program will allow some first-time offenders to undergo treatment in exchange for avoiding a criminal charge altogether.
The program is one that “should’ve been done years ago,” said District Attorney Perry Nicosia, a former state judge. Nicosia won a three-way race to succeed Jack Rowley, who died last year after 35 years as St. Bernard DA.
If prosecutors find that an arrest for a misdemeanor, such as a theft, was driven by a drug or alcohol dependency, Nicosia hopes the program will help the defendant tackle that problem so that he or she can potentially avoid committing another crime.
In another change since taking office, Nicosia has implemented a “no-drop policy,” meaning that if victims in domestic violence cases later try to have the charges dropped, prosecutors will still press ahead even without their cooperation.
“What that allows is to make sure that they’re found guilty even if the victim says, ‘I don’t want to testify,’ ” he said.
Rowley at times drew criticism for bringing so few criminal cases to trial in St. Bernard. Some observers charged that he was too quick to plea-bargain with defendants, in part because he often accepted cases without taking a hard look at their merits and then ended up with some weak ones.
The new diversion program is different from just dismissing charges, Nicosia said. “It’s more work,” he said. “It’s more involved.”
Getting through the program’s requirements won’t be easy, and the stakes are high, he said.
“If they fail a drug test or go back to drinking alcohol, we take them to trial; we go after them and we make sure we get a guilty verdict,” Nicosia said. “You’ve got to have a little teeth in the programs.”
Cases will be handled on an individual basis, depending on the offense. A first-time offender arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana, for example, may be ordered to undergo random drug tests, attend substance-abuse courses and stay on probation for six months to a year.
The defendant will be assessed the costs involved in paying for the program, including drug tests and other fees. For marijuana and theft charges, that may be near $400. “That’s going to get them the treatment, evaluation, drug testing that they need,” Nicosia said. “That’s compared to, if you’re found guilty of marijuana, the court will generally issue a fine and court costs,” perhaps $600.
A drunk-driving charge may cost about $1,500.
So far, his office has been seeing about 80 marijuana charges each month, half typically from first-time offenders.
Nicosia said his office has about 21 employees, but he expects that number to rise once the diversion program is in full swing.
“It’s not only cheaper, but it gets to the problem,” he said. “It gets to what’s going on with this person, why they have this dependency or why they’re stealing or why they’re committing domestic violence.”
St. Bernard Sheriff James Pohlmann supports the initiative. “Particularly when you’re talking about people in their late teens, early 20s, sometimes a good person makes a bad decision, and this (program) creates an opportunity for them to try to get things cleared up or fix their problems,” he said.
For a young person, a criminal record may pose a problem when trying to enroll in college, enlist in the military or find a job, he said.
“Nobody wants to be a drug addict,” he said. “And if you have a mechanism in place to get those people help, that’s an incentive for them to get help to try to get their life back on track.”
Pete Adams, the head of the Louisiana District Attorney Association, says it’s possible St. Bernard was the last place in Louisiana that didn’t already have a diversion program in place.
While the aim is to help keep people from making the same mistakes twice, Adams said, the programs are not without political risk.
“Obviously, you’re taking a chance on a person you divert, and you’re giving the opportunity to be rehabilitated without going through the system,” he said. “That becomes a liability that the DA has to handle politically, but most of the programs are very successful with low recidivism, The services that are offered in lieu of court intervention and a (criminal) record by and large are effective.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.