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Criminal justice diversion programs redirect, guide individuals

The Orange County Court House sits in Hillsborough on Feb. 8, 2020. The Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department is housed inside of the courthouse.

This article is part of the Mental Health Collaborative, a project completed by nine North Carolina college newsrooms to cover mental health issues in their communities. To read more stories about mental health, explore the interactive project developed specifically for this collaborative.

In Orange County, the Criminal Justice Resource Department has created several programs to support justice-involved community members since it opened in 2015. Their diversion programs focus on increasing community safety and well-being by deflecting individuals from the criminal justice system by offering them direct access to necessary interventions.

According to the CJRD’s winter newsletter, the purpose of a deflection or diversion program is to reduce the harm of legal system involvement by diverting individuals to therapeutic, harm reduction, educational and community resources.

Orange County’s first Misdemeanor Diversion Program launched in 2016 as a means of diverting 16- and 17-year-olds with first-time misdemeanor offenses from criminal proceedings. The program ended in late 2019 when North Carolina’s Raise the Age legislation, a law that prevents 16- and 17-year-olds from being tried for low-level offenses as legal adults, took effect.

The CJRD then established the Orange County Pre-Arrest Diversion program, which handles adult-aged first-time offenders with specific low-level misdemeanors such as underage drinking, and the Youth Deflection Program, which primarily serves middle and high schoolers with low-level offenses such as theft.

“We’ve grown significantly since 2015, when we first started, and one of the main growth areas has been in deflection and diversion,” Caitlin Fenhagen, Orange County's criminal justice resource director, said.

The county’s diversion programming has expanded to include The Lantern Project, which serves individuals with a history of substance use, and the Mental Health Diversion Collaboration , which serves individuals with mental illness. 

“We recognize that there are more and more people coming into the criminal court system or interacting with law enforcement that are impacted by behavioral health issues,” Fenhagen said.

OC-PAD and YDP generally last around 90 days, while The Lantern Project and Mental Health Diversion Collaboration programming takes around six months, or until an individual is no longer court-involved, Ashley Machado, the mental health diversion coordinator for the CJRD, said.  

Fenhagen said OC-PAD is typically the most successful program, because it’s composed of first-time offenders. According to a newsletter released from OC-PAD, of the 183 people referred between July 2022 and June 2023, only two people didn’t successfully complete the program.

Fenhagen said YDP was similarly successful, with 84 referrals since its creation two years ago, and only seven percent of participants having re-offended.

Machado said 82 percent of participants in the Mental Health Diversion Collaboration saw an improvement in their mental health symptoms during their time in the program.

Fenhagen said the diversion programming is successful because it’s a collaborative county commitment. She said the CJRD works with the courthouse, law enforcement, first responders, the county manager and others.

“Our diversion partnerships mean so much to us and they’re a team effort," Alex Carrasquillo, Chapel Hill's community safety public information officer, said in an email. "We hear often that we are an example of the inspiring progress that can come from law enforcement and mental health/human services professionals effectively working together and we are proud of that."

Fenhagen said admission into each of the diversion programs begins with a referral from law enforcement or court personnel, who receive training from liaisons within their agencies on how to identify individuals in need of intervention.

Carrasquillo said, for the Chapel Hill Police Department, this instruction includes internal training sessions, attending conferences and having conversations with members of the CJRD.

Individuals who receive referrals meet with a diversion coordinator, who then develops a diversion plan for them to complete. Tami Pfeifer, the YDP coordinator, said diversion plans could include seeking counseling, participating in mentorship programs or engaging in restorative justice conversations with those that their offenses impacted.

Fenhagen, Carrasquillo and Pfeifer all said the diversion programming has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Especially with COVID and post-COVID, we’ve seen an increase in substance use and mental health diagnoses, and a lack of available treatment and resources," Fenhagen said. "And so we’re seeing those people ending up in our criminal legal system far more than we ever did in the past.”

Fenhagen said OC-PAD, YDP and the Mental Health Diversion Collaboration are fully funded by the County. The Lantern Project was originally grant-funded by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and is now funded by the County with the support of Orange County’s Opioid Settlement Fund.

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All of the diversion programs are free to participants, Fenhagen said.

“We’re excited by this work and look forward to opportunities to grow it even more," Carrasquillo said. "We continue to talk regularly with our Orange County partners and commit to doing our part to make this a holistic effort to support our community’s health.”


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