MANKATO — More first-time theft defendants in Blue Earth County will have the opportunity to avoid having a criminal record.
An expanding diversion program aims to hold offenders accountable but prevent one mistake from derailing their future, says Blue Earth County Attorney Pat McDermott.
The Blue Earth County Attorney’s Office already has been dismissing charges for some shoplifting and other petty theft crimes if the offender pays restitution and completes other requirements.
Now the diversion program is expanding to include more crimes with more defined eligibility guidelines and requirements for earning a dismissal of charges.
The new diversion program is open to select defendants charged with crimes including theft, welfare fraud, issuing bad checks and credit card fraud. With prosecutor discretion, misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor and felony level crimes may be eligible.
Participants cannot have any prior felony convictions, any gross misdemeanor or violent misdemeanor convictions in the prior decade, or any prior theft history.
Defendants will still be charged, appear before a judge with an attorney and can chose to plead not guilty or to plead guilty and accept a traditional conviction and sentence.
Defendants who choose diversion will spend six months to two years in the program, depending on the level of offense. They must pay restitution and perform community service — eight to 40 hours depending on the level of offense.
Probation officers also may require offenders to get drug or alcohol treatment or participate in other programs such as a cognitive skills class.
“It’s still about holding people accountable,” McDermott said.
Blue Earth County Community Corrections officers will oversee participants’ progress. Director John Marsolek said the requirements are comparable to probation requirements following a conviction.
“We’re still providing access to services,” he said. “We hope this will be a carrot to help them keep motivated.”
The charge is dismissed once a participant completes all their requirements. The charge would be returned to the traditional court process if the offender does not complete the program.
McDermott expects fewer than a dozen people per year will meet the criteria and choose the program. But for those few, the county attorney and probation director both said the opportunity will have a significant payoff.
Any criminal conviction can have multiple lifelong “collateral consequences,” both McDermott and Marsolek said. It can often stymie employment and education options, they said, which are prime factors in recidivism.
“If they can’t get a job or education, they can’t better themselves,” McDermott said.
The program also could save the county and courts system some staffing and administrative costs as the cases bypass the usual court process.
Several other counties across the state, mostly in metro areas, also have a similar diversion program.
“Rather than being just reactionary, we are trying to be more progressive,” McDermott said.