Columbus launches diversion program for misdemeanor theft, shoplifting cases


The root causes of crime: that's the focus of a new diversion program by the Columbus City Attorney.

The aim is to break the cycle of repeat offenders by looking at the causes behind their crimes.

Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein says his new diversion program began with a simple question: Why does a defendant commit a crime?

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The answer was anything but simple.

"There are still bad people that deserve to go to jail for a very long time. I will be the first to advocate for those people to get off the streets and make sure they're incarcerated. But for the vast majority of individuals, it's the fact that they fall on hard times," Klein said.

He used the example of someone who steals food or diapers.

Under his new program, eligible defendants will be connected to the Central Ohio Pathways Hub.

Caseworkers will screen them with a 36-question survey to determine the root causes of their crime.

Based on their situation and needs, they will be connected to health and social services.

"Each individual defendant gets a tailored plan, a prescription if you will, to that defendant to treat the underlying reason that person is before the court. So for example, if housing and food insecurity and mental health pop, part of your diversion program will be to visit your food bank, to go get an assessment for mental health," Klein said.

Those who successfully complete the 6 month program will have their cases dropped. Those who do not, will be prosecuted

Earl Lawson with Wellness First has been doing this kind of work for years.

"Most of the clients aren't aware of the vast resources in the city- that they can get free assistance with diapers, sometimes car repairs, help with employment and so forth. it's a matter of knowing where to go when you're in a desperate situation," he said.

He's seen successful outcomes.

"We've seen people get gainful employment, from part-time to full time. We've seen people who were homeless get housing."

"The purpose of the criminal justice system is accountability," Klein said. "and focusing on what really makes our community safer. By treating the underlying reasons why somebody commits crime, and pulling them out of the cycle of the reason why they commit a crime, to me that is justice."

For now, the pilot program only applies to theft and shoplifting from big box stores like Wal Mart, Target and Kroger.

Klein says if it's successful, he hopes to expand it beyond that.

The head of the police union has reservations about the program.

FOP Number 9 President Keith Ferrell told 10TV: "I am fully supportive of our city trying to do things to get at the cause of people committing crimes. But I am concerned about this program being abused, and eventually we're not prosecuting anyone for these crimes."