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Ann Arbor, MI – May 3, 2021 - The Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office, in partnership with the Probation Department at Ann Arbor’s 15th District Court, today announced the creation of an innovative pre-plea diversion program for defendants accused of certain misdemeanors.
Unlike in a typical diversion program, defendants in certain misdemeanor cases will be able to enter the program prior to entering a guilty plea in their case. The Probation Department will serve as diversion specialists and will work with participants to co-create an individualized plan. Depending on the circumstances that led to the defendant entering the criminal legal system, that plan may include substance-use treatment, mental health treatment, counseling, restitution to victims, and/or therapy.
If program participants successfully complete the program—which will typically last 6 months—the Prosecutor’s Office will dismiss charges outright, without the participant ever entering a guilty plea.
The program was created to address the fact that the mere act of entering a guilty plea can trigger collateral consequences. People who plead guilty to a crime may be unable to secure housing or jobs, and noncitizens may face immigration consequences.
The program is believed to be the first in Michigan that does not require a guilty plea to access services typically provided through probation.
“People often find their way into the criminal legal system because they are dealing with substance use, mental-health issues, or poverty,” said Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit. “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,” Savit continued. “This unique program will help people get back on track, without the far-reaching consequences of a guilty plea.”
The program will be supervised by Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Victoria Burton-Harris, a former criminal defense attorney who spearheaded its creation. Burton-Harris praised the program as an innovative solution to the issues faced by many of her former clients.
“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. “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 that the program is reflective of a broad commitment to rehabilitation in 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. “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.”
The program is expected to serve 150 people between now and the end of 2021. Defendants charged with a variety of misdemeanor offenses will be eligible for the program. Certain offenses, however—such as domestic violence, stalking, child abuse, and drunk-driving offenses—will not be included.
The first participants were enrolled in the program on Monday morning in the 15th District Court.
Following an evaluation of the program’s initial phase in the 15th District Court, the Prosecutor’s Office hopes to expand it, including by offering pre-plea diversion opportunities in other courts in Washtenaw County.