Help instead of handcuffs: Kane County launching pre-arrest diversion program
By Charles Keeshan and Susan Sarkauskas
Anyone who's seen an episode of "Cops" knows how it goes: Police respond to the scene of a crime, find and arrest the suspects, then book them into jail, where they'll wait behind steel doors until their day in court.
But what if it didn't have to be that way? What if the whole routine ended not with handcuffs but with a helping hand? What if instead of jail, police take their suspect to a homeless shelter, a drug-treatment center or a mental health provider?
Those are the questions leaders in Kane County's criminal justice system are asking as they prepare to launch a pre-arrest diversion program that would be the first of its kind in the suburbs.
Modeled after Seattle's LEAD -- Law Enforcement-Assisted Diversion -- the program will send some low-level, nonviolent offenders to social services instead of lockup. And unlike the host of deferred prosecution programs in the suburbs -- like drug and mental health courts -- the offer of help comes before the suspect is arrested and charged.
"Essentially, what we're doing is we're getting them to treatment or to resources quicker, and we're not putting the stigma of the arrest on them," Kane County State's Attorney Jamie Mosser said while explaining the program to a county board committee earlier this year. "For any person who has ever had to be in that situation having handcuffs put on them, especially if they have mental health issues or if they have an addiction issue that they haven't been able to get under control yet, you're just adding to the stress, you're adding to the suffering that they already have."
How it works
The pilot program will start with the Elgin Police Department and Kane County sheriff's office, but officials hope to eventually expand it countywide.
Once in place, the process largely will be driven by police officers trained in the program's concepts. When they come across a suspect in a minor crime, they'll use their discretion to decide whether to make an arrest or offer the person entry to the program.
Those who choose the program will be paired with a case manager who will connect the individual with treatment and social services aimed at addressing the root causes of their criminal behavior.
The person will sign a contract agreeing to follow the course of action decided by the case manager, and could face criminal consequences for not living up to their end of the deal.
"(We're) allowing them to take accountability, which is big a part of this program, because they know that if they ultimately fail to participate in this program, then the charges will eventually be filed," said Mosser, who made the program a part of her election campaign in 2020.
Sheriff Ron Hain said there's also a "restorative justice" element to the program that will involve victims.
Elgin Police Chief Ana Lalley noted that her department's Collaborative Crisis Services Unit already teams officers with mental health professionals and offers diversion for some with mental health or substance use disorders.
"This pilot program would allow us to have an alternate option available for those individuals who meet certain criteria, including nonviolent offenders, and whose criminal acts are related to addiction, mental health, or being unhoused," Lalley told us in an email. "As we continue to provide the best services to our community, we are also mindful to be advocates for victims in the criminal justice system to ensure that their voices are heard and that they are the loudest. "
Will it work?
While it's new here, similar programs have seen success elsewhere. A 2015 study of Seattle's LEAD showed that its participants were 60% less likely to be arrested within six months of entering the program, when compared against a control group, and 58% less likely over the next several years.
A similar report prepared for the International Association of Chiefs of Police says that while further study is needed, LEAD programs have produced promising results so far.
"LEAD can improve participants' access to housing and behavioral health outcomes," the report states. "Research additionally suggests that these programs can reduce pressure on the criminal justice system through reducing the number of arrests, charges, and jail and prison incarcerations experienced by LEAD participants, resulting in substantial cost savings."
More than just reducing recidivism, advocates say the program can spare a lot of unnecessary hardship for people struggling with illness, addiction or finances.
"Especially for our clients, where they are living paycheck to paycheck and have jobs that don't provide for time off, even one night in jail completely upends their life," Kane County Public Defender Rachele Conant told county board members earlier this year. "If they lose their job, there is a spiral effect that then they lose their housing, they lose their cellphone, and at that point they are then homeless. And, unfortunately, then the cycle of crime continues."
Who's paying for it?
The first batch of funding for the program comes courtesy of some interdepartmental sharing.
Hain agreed in March to give $50,000 from the sheriff's office budget to the state's attorney's office so it could hire the program's first case manager.
Mosser said future funding will come through user fees and grants.
Good news on that end came Tuesday, when U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood announced that $350,000 for the program has made it into a federal House appropriations bill. If it remains in the final bill passed by the House and Senate, the money will allow the state's attorney to hire three more case managers and a community engagement coordinator, according to Underwood's office.
How to learn more
Advocates are planning a pair of community forums later this month to discuss the program.
The first is set for 5:30 p.m.-7 p.m. Wednesday, July 28, in the community room of the Gail Borden Public Library, 270 N. Grove Ave., Elgin. The second is scheduled to 5:30 p.m.-7 p.m. Thursday, July 29, in the meeting room at the Geneva Public Library, 227 S. Seventh St., Geneva.
Breaking the cycle
Kane County isn't alone in launching an innovative program this summer aimed at addressing a difficult problem.
The Lake County state's attorney's office announced this week it's using a $50,050 state grant to begin offering treatment, and second chances, to juveniles accused of domestic violence.
The Step Up program aims to break the cycle of violence in the home by offering young offenders treatment that they might not otherwise receive for months -- if at all -- through often lengthy juvenile court proceedings. "Step Up" is an acronym for Stop-Think-Evaluate-Plan-Use-Patience.
Minors who successfully complete the 21-week program could see the charges against them expunged from their records, removing a potential barrier to future employment and other achievements, said Karen Levi, chief of the state's attorney's office juvenile division.
"The goal is to get kids educated and held accountable without having a record," she said in an announcement of the program. "It's not just for juveniles. The parents have to actively participate in the program."
DuPage County has had a similar program for about 10 years, After speaking with its leaders, Levi is convinced it can be successful in Lake as well. Besides getting the offenders help and keeping their records clean, the program could save their families considerable court-related costs and relieves court docket pressure, officials say.
Buffalo Grove-based OMNI Youth Services will provide the treatment and training for the program, which officials hope to have up and running within six to eight weeks.
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