Beginning this week, Albany County will become the first county in the state to implement a diversion program for college-aged adults.
“There are a few other communities that have programs set up to provide community service or restorative justice as part of plea negotiations, but these programs aren’t a true pre-trial diversion,” Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent said.
Using $30,000 appropriated by Albany County Commissioners during the 2020 fiscal year’s budgeting process, the county board inked a deal this month with Cathedral Home for Children to have the Laramie group home run programming for the participants in the diversion program.
Under a diversion program, some people charged crimes can avoid prosecution and a criminal record by completing a rehabilitation program that often involves community service and education designed to help defendants avoid repeat offenses.
Pre-trial diversion programs for juveniles are common across both Wyoming and the U.S., but diversion programs for adults are harder to come by.
But with the University of Wyoming bringing Albany County’s median age to 27, Trent the new program is needed to change the way the criminal justice system handles the poor decision-making of young people.
According to the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, UW Police made 192 arrests for alcohol violations in 2018, with the vast majority being minor in possession charges.
The Laramie Police Department made 83 alcohol-related arrests for adults aged 18-20 that same year.
In total, there were 16 people under the age of 21 who were arrested for DUIs in Albany County last year.
In 2018, people aged 18-25 constituted 15% of all total alcohol-related arrests in Wyoming.
“People should get a bit of a life-line so that, when they do something bone-headed, it’s not life-altering; or if it is life-altering, it’s life-altering in a positive way,” Commissioner Heber Richardson said.
With students’ prefrontal cortexes still developing, Trent said there’s a better way to handle these kinds of college-aged mistakes.
“It’s not uncommon for us to have a young adult who’s away from home for the first time, 18 or 19, and finds themselves in a situation where they made a choice to engage in at-risk behavior: alcohol abuse and/or use of marijuana,” Trent said. “As a result of that, a young adult in college has a lot to lose if they’re here on a Hathaway scholarship or any other type of scholarship. … Unfortunately, those students sometimes end up in our Title 25 program because they want to commit suicide after they’ve lost their funding and support because they made a choice that wasn’t thought out well at that time.”
Title 25 refers to the section of Wyoming statute by which a person is temporarily detained because they are deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.
While UW may have inspired the program, students at LCCC and WyoTech are also eligible for diversion services. In fact, the program is open to anyone aged 18-25.
The program officially begins today. Trent’s office and the Cathedral Home have already screened five defendants to join it.
The current agreement between the county and Cathedral Home, which runs through July, allows for just five participants in the program at any time.
However, Trent expects that number to quickly increase.
“I can see up to 100 a month that might come through the program,” she said. “I can assure you that if an individual’s interested in the program, we will — more than likely — accept them.”
UW alone has more than enough low-level offenses to fill the initial quota.
Since the beginning of November, UW Police have cited 16 students for underage consumption of alcohol, four students for disorderly conduct, three students for use of a controlled substance, two students for being minors in possession of alcohol, two students for possession of a controlled substance and two students for larceny.
Two non-students were also arrested for underage possession of alcohol by UW Police and two were arrested for possession of a controlled substance, according to police logs.
“A lot of young adults look at the way we treat them while they’re in school and the criminal justice system,” Trent said. “We want them to stay in our community and the state of Wyoming, and when a youth gets convicted or feels they’re being harassed, they don’t want to stay in our community and state. This is our future and we want them to realize that, while they made a misjudgment, we want to be able to redirect it to get them to graduation.”
The program should also have other benefits for Trent’s office.
“I believe this frees up time for prosecutors to divert our attention to more violent offenses, rather than dealing with these low-level offenses. They consume a lot of our court,” Trent said.
Under the current version of the program, interested defendants will be screened for eligibility.
Defendants who are accepted will sign a diversion agreement that authorizes Cathedral Home to supervise them.
“Depending on their needs and the offense, there could be a 90-day intervention and up to 6 months,” Trent said.
Participants will be charged a $200 fee, be required to work 20 hours a week and complete community service. Cathedral Home is also responsible for providing mentoring services for participants and referring them for mental health services.
Brooke Benson, community programs director for Cathedral Home, said she wants to tap into participants’ interests to personalize their community service.
“We want to help them create healthy support networks with one another,” she said. “We want meaningful community service and to really help these young adults give back to their community in a way that gets them excited and passionate. We want them to feel like they’re doing something worthwhile and contributing. … Our goal with community service is to connect with them. We’re not just going to throw them out and say ‘Go collect trash.’ We’re going to do community service with them.”
Once a defendant is accepted into the program, their criminal case will be dismissed — contingent on their compliance with their diversion agreement.
“As we start getting more individuals in the program, it is our intent that officers will write an offense ticket 8-10 weeks out so that we have an opportunity to speak to those young adults about the diversion program before they appear in court. But if they don’t want to do it, they don’t have to,” Trent said. “If there’s non-compliance, you go back to court, and we will enforce that.”
Currently, the program is only available for defendants charged in Albany County Circuit Court. About half the offenses that would qualify a defendant for the program are charged in Laramie Municipal Court.
“Our hope is that, once we get the program up and running, it will be available for municipal court, because we don’t want disparity in the way we’re treating young adults. They should all be treated the same,” Trent said.
Future funding for the program will be re-examined near the end of the current fiscal year.
Trent said she’s hoping for buy-in from UW and that here will ultimately be coordination between the UW Student Affairs and the county’s diversion program to avoid “duplicative punishments.”
Trent said she hopes that grant funding and the participants’ fees will help sustain the program’s growth.
Since the diversion program should also free up work from the Department of Correction’s probation operations, Trent said she’s also hoping to get funding from the state agency.
The creation of the diversion program follows other efforts Trent has made during her tenure to reform how young people are handled in the criminal justice system. Immediately after taking office in 2015, Trent established a juvenile services board that oversees the management of individual juvenile cases.
In 2018, the county also established a drug court specifically for juveniles.