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Salt Lake County unveils criminal justice diversion program

FILE: DA Sim Gill and County Mayor Jenny Wilson releasing the details of the diversion program July 30, 2019. (Paul Nelson)

SALT LAKE CITY – Prosecutors hope a new pilot program will go a long way in reducing the crowding inside the Salt Lake County Jail.  Plus, they say it offers people accused of low-level crimes more chances to avoid facing charges.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill says there’s a difficult balancing act when it comes to placing people inside the jail.  He says prosecutors in other cities have declared they won’t prosecute low-level crimes, but Gill thinks that’s a bad idea.  He says it sends a bad message about public safety.  However, he says not all criminals deserve the same level of incarceration.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is to not co-mingle people with different levels of risks and needs,” he says, adding, “I want to have that jail bed for a person who is a genuine risk to the community, not [just] a person whose conduct we don’t like or disapprove of, someone who is mentally ill or a non-violent offender.”

Starting Monday, the DA’s office will launch a “diversion program” that will allow people accused of petty crimes to avoid charges, as long as they comply with certain requirements.  For instance, they have to attend classes that address their criminal behavior about how they should change it.  This would apply to only non-violent misdemeanors or third degree felonies.

Gill says, “You’ve got Class A misdemeanors for simple possession.  You’ve got trespassing.  You’ve got public intoxication.  You’ve got retail theft.  You’ve got a whole host of misdemeanor behavior.”

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson says many inmates in the jail were arrested after making a series of bad decisions, like taking drugs, and they need help that the jail can’t provide.

“These aren’t hardened criminals.  These aren’t people that end up in a situation that threatens society,” she says.

People enrolled in the program would also get help in finding work or finding educational opportunities.  Gill estimates 750 people would be helped by this program within the first year and he believes people arrested during Operation Rio Grande would benefit the most.