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Clayton County debuts diversion program

By Greg Gelpi

Summoned to court, people faced an opportunity Monday, rather than a judge.

Clayton County Solicitor General Leslie Miller Terry implemented the county's first diversion program for those facing misdemeanor charges, an "opportunity" for people to avoid criminal prosecution and have their records expunged.

One woman didn't even understand why she was called to court, but Terry explained the circumstances which lead to a bounced check. The program will primarily be available to first time offenders, particularly those facing potential prosecution for minor infractions, such as bad checks.

"Some may call it good news; some may call it not," Terry said.

Rather than continuing with the judicial process for a misdemeanor with an arraignment, trial and potential punishment of up to a $1,000 fine and one year in jail, those offered a chance in the program can opt for the diversion program as an "alternative," she said.

The Alternative Choices Corporation diversion program, a privately operated program funded by its participants, focuses on three areas, Harry Bowden of the program said. The program gets participants to address why they are where they are, what is needed to get them back on the right track and how to be more productive.

Even if the diversion program is offered to someone, though, it doesn't necessarily mean acceptance into the program, Bowden said.

"We reserve the right not to accept you," he said of the 13-week to six-month program. "We understand after a number of years of doing this that a number of people aren't ready to change their lives."

Nearly every other county in metro Atlanta already has a diversion program, Terry said.

"This is an opportunity that hasn't been offered before in Clayton County," Terry said. "Our mission as prosecutor is to prosecute, don't get me wrong, but it's also to be fair."

The goal is "to not create criminals," she said, adding other goals of "rehabilitation and reestablishment" of participants. Once records are expunged, employers wouldn't know if someone had been arrested.

Clayton County District Attorney Jewel Scott said the county began a similar program for felonies in January.

Scott said the diversion program is for those "who are not appropriately served by the prosecution process."

Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney John Turner described a middle-aged Korean couple who were charged with selling counterfeit pocketbooks and other items. Rather than risking their immigration status, they were offered an opportunity to go through the diversion program. Part of the program had the couple speaking to Korean merchants about the illegality of counterfeit products.

The program "unclogs" the justice system and provides a second chance, Scott said.

If the diversion program is completed and the participant meets all the criteria for the program, Scott and Terry said that the cases against suspects are dismissed and they wouldn't be formerly accused. In addition, the suspects' records would be eligible to be expunged.

Individuals have the opportunity to take part in the diversion program before going to court, but once they turn down the program, only a judge can offer them the opportunity to enter a diversion program, Terry said.

Scott said that her office is working on an additional diversion program that would give another opportunity during the pretrial period.