Diversion program helps homeless residents erase charges, avoid jail time

DIFFERENT APPROACH: Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams, pictured, says a new program launched in February offers opportunities for homeless residents accused of nonviolent misdemeanor crimes to avoid jail time and other repercussions. Photo courtesy of Williams

Homelessness is not a crime, yet people living without shelter are far more likely to wind up in jail than those with even a temporary roof over their head. According to a multistate survey conducted by the California Policy Lab, unsheltered homeless folks are nine times as likely as people in shelters to report having spent at least one night in jail in the last six months. The nonpartisan research institute is affiliated with the University of California.

Living outside often leads to citations or arrests for low-level offenses such as loitering, public urination  or sleeping in parks. And having those minor infractions on a person’s permanent record can limit future employment and housing opportunities, thereby furthering the cycle of homelessness.

But a new program, launched in February by the Buncombe County District Attorney’s Office, aims to give homeless residents accused of such crimes another option. The Unhoused Diversion Program, a specialized addition to the existing Adult Misdemeanor Diversion Program managed by the Buncombe County Justice Resource Center, is designed to spare low-risk, homeless offenders from the consequences of a criminal record while connecting them with resources to help break the cycle of arrest and homelessness.

“We’re not going to incarcerate our way out of homelessness, nor is it the right thing to do,” Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams declares. “If someone is unhoused and is going through a crisis, is this the time to fine them? Can you place them on probation? Can they reasonably be supervised if they don’t have an address or they don’t have a job? And is incarceration for a very marginal criminal act an appropriate response? I think the answer is ‘No’ to all of the above.”

Far-reaching consequences

Low-level misdemeanors such as camping, trespassing and panhandling are typically punished by some combination of jail time (usually less than a year), a fine and/or probation. Williams, who was first elected DA in 2014 and previously served 14 years as a public defender, says he considers many such offenses to be “crimes of necessity” that are a direct result of not having a place to live.

“There’s different issues involved if someone has an apartment or house to go to and is choosing to sleep in a park or urinate in public, but for someone who is unhoused and who’s staying in a tent, they may not have many options,” notes Williams.

Although many so-called nuisance crimes don’t initially lead to a jail stay, people accused of them can still be given citations. And if they’re unable to show up for required court appearances due to a lack of transportation or other homelessness-related problems, a warrant may be issued for their arrest. So the next time they cross paths with the police, they could end up in jail. After serving their sentence, many individuals end up back on the street — with misdemeanor charges now part of their permanent record.

That can have far-reaching consequences, says Kendra Queen, diversion services supervisor at the Justice Resource Center. “Having a low-level misdemeanor charge on your record might hurt your opportunity for employment,” she explains.“Those direct and indirect consequences of having any criminal charge on your record can impact housing and the ability to find a job.”

And those impacts, in turn, can lead to people becoming trapped in a cycle of homelessness and jail time.

Breaking the cycle

The Justice Resource Center’s Unhoused Diversion Program focuses on aspects of homelessness that the criminal justice system rarely addresses, such as poverty, trauma, mental illness and addiction. It specifically targets homeless residents who’ve been charged with nonviolent misdemeanors. People charged with violent crimes aren’t eligible.

Depending on the severity and type of offense, participants’ involvement in the program may last from three to nine months. During that time, they’re required to attend classes teaching skills that have been shown to improve people’s lives, such as anger management, acceptance-and-commitment therapy and coping with substance abuse.

Those who complete the program are eligible for case dismissal, which is at the discretion of the district attorney’s office; those who enroll but fail to fully comply with the rules are returned to court for traditional prosecution.

Dealing with such complex issues requires extensive collaboration. The District Attorney’s Office is working with the Buncombe County Public Defender and dozens of community partners, says Queen.

“Our team is made up of counselors, case managers and peer support, so we can really take this holistic approach to serving Buncombe County residents,” she explains. “There might be a need for outpatient treatment, other medical-related needs or transportation. We’re looking at all of that and helping meet those needs so participants can have their cases dismissed.”

The program also provides resources to help address common barriers that homeless people face, such as lacking identification or a permanent address.

“I would say the transportation and [access to] mail are critical to being successful in dealing with the justice system while unhoused,” stresses Marcus Laws, homeless services director at AHOPE Day Center, one of those partner agencies. “With COVID-19, the additional barrier of technology came into play, with virtual court sessions.”

Accordingly, the Justice Resource Center provides program participants with bus tickets and computer access, so they can send and receive email, conduct job search correspondence and print program-related documents and resumes.

AHOPE, meanwhile, serves as a hub where county Justice Services staffers can meet with participants to help them stay current with things like court notifications and appearances. “The services at our day center will also be available for use by participants,” notes Laws, adding, “It may not guarantee that they will be successful, but it does work to remove barriers to success.”

Measuring success

Not everyone is on board with the diversion concept, however. In December, Asheville Police Chief David Zack sent Williams a letter citing data from the state Administrative Office of the Courts concerning the DA’s handling of low-level arrests. Between 2018 and 2021, the letter noted, Williams’ office had dismissed almost all such infractions, which are “routinely complained of by downtown businesses and residents.”

Zack went on to say that “To date, I have received no notice from you, any judge, any attorney employed by your office, or any other judicial officer that APD personnel are making inappropriate arrests, bringing charges with insufficient evidence, or failing to show up for scheduled court appearances.” The letter also made it clear that the chief planned to share that information at an upcoming meeting with downtown business owners.

Williams, however, says there are various reasons that a charge may be dismissed. Sometimes, he explains, APD officers are required to appear in court as witnesses, and it may not be worth their while to show up. Other times, a low-level charge is dismissed to speed up prosecution of a more serious crime stemming from the same incident.

In addition, he points out, “There could have been people that did treatment or could have done community service, and then earned those dismissals.”

Although the DA says he hasn’t had direct feedback from Zack about the Unhoused Diversion Program, which launched two months after the chief sent his letter, Williams notes that the APD has been referring participants to it.

Despite repeated attempts, Xpress was unable to get a comment from Zack concerning the new program.

And while Williams and Queen both have high hopes for the program’s success, it’s too soon to tell. Only 10 homeless people have enrolled since Feb. 1, when the District Attorney’s Office began making referrals.

The broader Adult Misdemeanor Diversion Program, however, does have a successful track record. Since its launch in October 2017, 843 individuals have been enrolled and 587 — nearly 70% — have completed the program and had their cases dismissed.

Williams, however, says his principal concern is not necessarily how much the program reduces recidivism among homeless residents but that, in his view, prosecuting crimes related to homelessness is simply a nonstarter that neither increases public safety nor gets people off the streets.

Diversion “is a more constructive response than giving somebody a day in jail and turning them back out on the street,” the DA maintains. “Even if the numbers don’t show improvement, I don’t think that there’s a nexus between homelessness and prosecution of violent crime.”

July 21 10:37 a.m. — This story has been updated to reflect a more accurate description of the requirements of the unhoused diversion program.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

One thought on “Diversion program helps homeless residents erase charges, avoid jail time

  1. RWD

    Well the program touches a lot of talking points, however respect and decency are omitted. Lets take for example you are living in a tent. Suppose you find yourself in the middle of a city and find a park with open fields; most parks will have signage that indicate what is and is not permitted within the park, so lets say there were no signs on the path where you came into the park, so you set up camp. You feel the need to urinate, no bathroom within view so what are your choices ? Go behind a clump of trees or bushes out of immediate view of the public or go to the sidewalk and relive yourself in open view of the public ? If a passer-by tells you tenting is not allowed in the park what do you do ? If a policeman tells you tenting is not allowed in the park, how do you handle and/or resolve the situation ? Respect and decency are important factors in how we react to all situations. How do we handle habitual repeat transgressions ? Being homeless shouldn’t toss out having respect and decency….nor should the rest of us forget about respect and decency !!

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.