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South Dakota county says diversion program reduces criminal re-offending

Participants of the Pennington County Diversion Program listen to Erik Brings White present inside the Pennington County Jail.
Pennington County
Participants of the Pennington County Diversion Program listen to Erik Brings White during a meeting inside the Pennington County Jail.

Pennington County officials are celebrating the success of a diversion program that reduces instances of criminal re-offending.

The county — which has its seat of government in Rapid City — is one of several in the state with alternatives to the court system for first-time or minor offenses. These diversion programs allow offenders to complete specialized requirements to have an arrest removed from their record. The programs also work with offenders to prevent future arrests.

Pennington County offers four kinds of diversion programs: a Juvenile Diversion Program for children and teens from 10 to 17, a Young Adult Diversion Program for offenders from 18 to 25, and an adult program for those 25 and older. The Drug Diversion Program addresses certain methamphetamine and heroin cases with longer-term treatment.

Victoria Wicks
Mark Vargo

Mark Vargo, the state’s attorney in Pennington County, says these programs are meant to help offenders who may not fully understand the consequences of an arrest.

“It’s not unusual for there to be — for instance, on a misdemeanor drug charge — consequences to student loan status, to federal housing status,” he said. “It’s not unusual to have collateral consequences, obviously, in the workplace, to either a drug case or possibly a theft case.”

How the programs work

If an offender enters the diversion program, they meet with diversion workers and an attorney if necessary to discuss the root cause of the offense and how to best help prevent recidivism, or the act of reoffending.

"We then decide what it is that we want to offer the participant as far as a contract,” Vargo said. “In other words, what are you going to have to do? Do you have to get your GED, do you have to get a job? Which we will help them with, but they have to participate in that process.”

The diversion program also works with the Wambli Ska Society, a nonprofit organization that helps Native youth in the Rapid City community, so Native elders can create contracts for Native offenders. Vargo says, however, that any participants of the program can choose to work with Wambli Ska regardless of race.

Once the requirements of the contract are complete, the state’s attorney's office will dismiss the case.

Offenders then enter the “obey all laws” period. If they are not rearrested for one year after completing the contract, the office expunges and seals their record.

Indicators of success

In the five years since the program’s creation, Vargo says only 16-17% of participants who successfully complete their contract requirements are rearrested within one year after the program.

In comparison, recidivism occurs in 60-70% of those who choose not to enter the diversion program or do not complete their requirements.

“Our statistics that we can generate very much indicate that these folks are now contributing members of the community,” Vargo said. “The community is better off.”

Vargo says this program also fills the holes often left by the probation system.

“Probation used to be a meaningful process on even misdemeanor cases, and it had really kind of diminished in terms of the amount of effort that was required for people,” he said.

Some common misdemeanors and low-level felonies that qualify for the diversion program include theft, vandalism, minor drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes. DUIs are not eligible for diversion. In victim cases, an offender can only enter the program if the victim agrees to it.

Minnehaha, Lincoln, Brown, Clay and Brookings counties, among others, have diversion programs for youth and adults. These programs can differ depending on the area of focus for each county.

Jordan is a senior English and journalism major at SDSU in Brookings. She is from De Smet, South Dakota. She is based out of the Sioux Falls studio.