New Fla. jail diversion program for misdemeanor offenders hoped to pare inmate population

More than 150 people were screened for the program in July and early August


By Eileen Zaffiro-Kean
The Daytona Beach News-Journal
        
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — For decades, there have been petty offense lawbreakers doing laps around Volusia County's legal system. They circle from the streets to courtrooms to jail and back to the streets again.

In 2013, Volusia County Judge Belle Schumann crunched some numbers and found 50 people had been arrested more than 6,100 times at a cost of more than $12 million.

Eight years later, Daytona Beach has a comprehensive homeless shelter for adults that's helping some serial offenders get off the streets and out of jail for good.

"It's a difficult group," State Attorney R.J. Larizza said of the misdemeanor offenders. "They need a lot of help, but there's not a lot of resources and they don't ask for help." (News-Journal)

But some local law enforcement officials say the revolving door at the jail is still spinning, and they hope a new pilot program will show it can help break the cycle.

It's called the SMART program, an acronym for State attorney's Mission to Assist thriving Rehabilitation and Treatment. The six-month program is targeting people accused of repeated non-violent misdemeanors and giving them a chance to have the charges against them dropped if they agree to follow a plan aimed at addressing the root causes of their problems.

For some people, that means getting substance abuse treatment and living in a sober house. For others there's a focus on getting help for a mental health problem. Some are veterans who can be connected with federal assistance programs.

There are also homeless people who need an array of help to get their lives back on track, everything from food stamps to help finding a job.

A $600,000 grant is funding the program, and it's being led by Stewart Marchman Act Healthcare, which offers help to people struggling with addictions and mental health problems. Key partners include jail officials, judges, police officers, sheriff's deputies, The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia and the State Attorney's Office.

"We know there are a lot of people who get charged for misdemeanor crimes, sit there in jail for seven to 10 days, get out, and then it happens again," said Seventh Circuit State Attorney R.J. Larizza. "Some get arrested over 100 times in a year."

Dozens helped already

There are more services and programs designed for people convicted of felonies than those arrested for misdemeanors, Larizza said.

"It's a difficult group," he said of the misdemeanor offenders. "They need a lot of help, but there's not a lot of resources and they don't ask for help."

The SMART program began July 1 and will continue until Dec. 31. The hope is that after the pilot program ends and the $600,000 grant is tapped dry, the state legislature will agree to fund a longer-term or even permanent program to divert people from jail and courtrooms into assistance that ends their days in handcuffs.

Stewart Marchman Act is compiling data and information on the people being helped, hoping after six months the agency will be able to show that the program is making a significant difference.

More than 150 people were screened for the program in July and early August, said Rhonda Harvey, chief operating officer of SMA Healthcare.

From July 1 to Aug. 10, 15 people were given Greyhound bus tickets so they could be reunited with family outside of Florida. Another 13 were placed in recovery housing, and seven were enrolled in services through the Neighborhood Center of West Volusia.

A total of 63 were connected to SMA outpatient services and given bus passes for transportation around Volusia County. Four veterans were connected with Veterans Administration services, including one person who was placed in a veterans recovery home.

So far there have been 24 people who failed to show up for check-in appointments.

How the program works

SMA received $375,000 from Lutheran Services of Florida through a forensic grant to work toward the restoration of competency of those who are incarcerated at the Volusia County Branch Jail awaiting disposition of their criminal offense, but who have been declared incompetent to proceed, Harvey said.

The $375,000 funds four positions: A re-entry specialist and a peer who focus on getting people back on their feet, and two case managers who provide screening and other services on the front end with the intent to divert from the jail those who would be less likely to recidivate if services are implemented.

Another $55,000 was set aside to provide client services such as transportation, rental deposits and medications.

SMA has hired two case workers who've been given an office at the jail to screen people scheduled for their first appearance hearings. Among other things, they're looking for an offender with a history of misdemeanors who's become a regular at the jail.

The case workers figure out what can help the person about to go before a judge, and if the inmate is willing to take part in a plan to improve some things in their lives, they can formally request that the charges against them be dropped and avoid a jail sentence.

"Before first appearance they sign deferred prosecution agreements," said Spencer Hathaway, Managing Assistant State Attorney and public information officer for the State Attorney's Office. "If they're successful complying with the agreement, charges are dropped."

But if it's a repeat offender and they refuse to be part of the SMART program, they could be looking at a harsher sentence than they're used to, Larizza said. Someone who typically would have been sentenced to five days in jail could instead be looking at 60-90 days, or possibly even longer if they have a lengthy criminal record, he said.

Larizza said he'd prefer to avoid long jail sentences, especially with COVID-19 as bad as ever, but he's hoping the diversion program will be an incentive for people to avoid jail stays completely.

Those who stick with the diversion program are being tracked to see how they're doing, Hathaway said.

"We're going to sober living homes and seeing if they're complying with treatment," he said.

Those who violate terms of their agreements, or refuse to be part of the program and get arrested again, can be given another chance to get it right, Larizza said.

"They have longstanding problems," he said. "You'll see successes and failures. But there has to be a stopping point with chances."

Those who agree to be in the diversion program and violate their agreements can also still be sentenced to jail, Larizza said.

He said ultimately things are handled "case by case."

He said SMA staff members are doing an excellent job, meeting with people within 24 hours of the State Attorney's Office identifying them as eligible for the program. Larizza also said the jail "has been an outstanding partner" in the SMART program.

Larizza hopes the program can turn around some lives and relieve the decades-long pressure on the jail.

"I just got tired of this problem existing. I started my career 40 years ago," he said. "We've dedicated staff to work on this."

Daytona's First Step Shelter might get involved

Harvey said the program grew out of two years of conversations with the State Attorney's Office.

"They were interested in having a process to identify people early on for substance abuse or mental health issues to divert them from jail," Harvey said.

Sometimes people wind up in jail repeatedly mainly because they haven't gotten a handle on their addiction or mental health, she said. If they can be helped after they're arrested, there's hope they can be pulled out of the revolving door, she said.

People eligible for the program usually have been charged with trespassing, vagrancy, disorderly intoxication or a similar nuisance crime. Harvey said a common problem is people who loiter outside a business and come inside only to cool off in the air conditioning.

She said one man constantly hangs out in front of a Beach Street jewelry store and urinates on the front door. He's been arrested repeatedly, and when he's taken away in handcuffs he taunts store employees and tells them he'll be back - a promise he keeps.

While the Neighborhood Center of West Volusia and its homeless shelter has an agreement to be a partner in SMART, First Step Shelter has not been a part of the program. But that could change in the coming months.

First Step Shelter Executive Director Victoria Fahlberg attended a meeting in April that explained the program, and then in early July she and Mayor Derrick Henry met with an SMA Healthcare official.

"SMA met with me on July 8th, a week into the program, to discuss the specifics of how First Step could partner with them," Fahlberg said.

Both Fahlberg and Henry said it would have been helpful to have had that detailed discussion before the program was launched.

"I explained that we would love to participate, as long as the partnership didn't undermine our current model of funding or require significant changes to our existing protocols and procedures for the safe zone," Fahlberg said. "I would love to hear back from them as I think we could be an asset as the safe zone was created for Pottinger compliance."

Pottinger compliance refers to a legal ruling that said homelessness can't be criminalized. When a homeless person commits a minor offense such as sleeping or urinating in public because they have no where else to go, legally they have to be offered an alternative place to go other than jail.

The safe zone, an outdoor pavilion in front of First Step Shelter, is a secure place homeless people can stay overnight or for part of a day to avoid jail on a minor infraction or just to have a legal place to be for a few hours.

The shelter only accepts people into the safe zone who are brought there by sheriff''s deputies since the county has been a large financial contributor to First Step, or police officers from cities that are financially contributing to the shelter.

The pilot jail diversion program was originally designed to send some people arrested on misdemeanors to the safe zone rather than jail. Police officers would have been dropping off people with a notice to appear in court, and they would be screened in the safe zone to see if they wanted to take part in the SMART program.

Fahlberg explained to program organizers that the safe zone only has 24 spots available and wasn't set up to do that.

People who have completed jail sentences or resolved their legal issues other ways can be eligible for the safe zone or the program inside the shelter that's focused on getting people into a home of their own, Fahlberg said.

Last week Larizza made some remarks on the situation with First Step Shelter when he spoke to the Flagler Tiger Bay Club, a nonpartisan group that gathers to discuss things involving politics, civics and other current issues.

The shelter is "certainly a resource we'd like to use," Larizza told Flagler Tiger Bay members.

"We are attempting to do that," he added during his remarks to the group. "I think we probably need to reach out to some more of the board members to try to open it up. The other shelter in DeLand has been a great partner. We've gotten them to work with us. The First Step has proven to be a little bit more of a challenge."

Larizza said his prosecutors have shifted away from taking people to First Step Shelter for now, but he's hopeful something can be worked out in the future.

"We're going to try to use it on the front or back end," he said. "We hope to get some type of participation."

Fahlberg said she'd be happy to talk to Larizza and others in the SMART program. But neither she nor the mayor, who's the chairman of the First Step Shelter Board, foresee changing the basic operating procedures of the shelter. It's focus is on getting people into housing, and 123 shelter residents have been housed so far.

First Step Board members and city commissioners decided that the program inside the shelter would be for those who want to turn their lives around, not just get a place to sleep and take a shower. The outdoor safe zone, which does have some beds and a restroom, will remain the temporary holding spot only for people brought in from municipalities each paying between $14,000 and $400,000 a year to use the facility, Fahlberg and Henry said.

"I know there's a desire in the community to have a jail diversion program, but that's not what First Step Shelter is intended to do," Henry said. "We want to graduate people from homelessness. I'm proud of the record we have to get people into permanent housing."

Henry noted that he hopes the shelter can double its bed capacity to help even more people.

He said he's always available to talk about helping Volusia County's homeless. But he added that "we're not going to change what we do, by any means."

"I don't foresee us becoming a jail diversion center," he said.

First Step Shelter opened in December 2019, and its funding allows it to house up to 50 people at once in its indoor program that offers comprehensive assistance to help residents get a permanent roof over their head.

In recent months there have been about 45-50 people staying there, and there is a new requirement for residents to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

©2021 www.news-journalonline.com.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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