Alexandra Arriaga, The Marshall Project
Each of the diversion programs run by Cuyahoga County’s felony court is designed to give some people charged with a felony a second chance, offering an alternative to incarceration and shielding them from the consequences of a conviction. Prosecutors have had the authority to create diversion programs since 1978 when legislators passed the first diversion statute.
Let’s take a closer look at one program: pretrial diversion.
Who qualifies for pretrial diversion?
Technically anyone who has been charged with a non-violent, non-drug-related felony in Cuyahoga County may qualify, if they have no previous felony convictions and no more than three misdemeanors or juvenile delinquencies within the past three years. Defendants also can’t owe more than $7,500 in restitution for a previous conviction.
Who approves cases for diversion?
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s office ultimately has discretion. Five supervisors in the prosecutor’s office handle cases from different parts of the county. The supervisor for each area approves which cases get a chance to be diverted from the regular trial process.
Of the roughly 1,800 low-level and non-violent felony cases in 2021, less than 25% went into pretrial diversion, according to Brendan Sheehan, the court’s administrative and presiding judge.
What are the conditions of the pretrial diversion program?
Entering this diversion program comes with some conditions. For starters, defendants must sign a statement admitting guilt and waiving their right to a trial. After that, the case is paused for six months to a year while the person works to meet the program requirements, which include paying restitution, court costs and fines and fees. Participants may be required to meet with a diversion officer, participate in community service and receive treatment for substance use or mental health problems. It’s similar to being on probation.
What are some of the risks?
Falling short on any of these requirements could mean a return to court. Because defendants sign a plea agreement admitting guilt, they do not have an opportunity to present evidence at a trial or renegotiate their plea. Instead, they are sentenced by a judge, and could face time either on probation or behind bars.
The risk of failing and heading straight to sentencing may be a reason people turn down pretrial diversion, said Terri Webb, who oversees diversion cases for the Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s office. People may also want a chance to prove they are not guilty in front of a jury of their peers.
How many people are successful?
Because the records of successful defendants are expunged, it’s not possible to use court records to track how many people successfully complete the program. The court also doesn’t include that information in its annual reports to the public, and a court spokesperson did not respond when asked whether that record is kept internally.
Share your diversion experience
Did you complete pretrial diversion? Tell us how it went. Did you decline to enter the program? Tell us why. Did you start the program, but not complete it? Tell us what happened. Share your experiences and insights by filling out the form below. Or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a voice message at (216) 446-5001.