Nonviolent offenders who completed the District Attorney's Office Diversion Program have a 4 percent recidivism rate, according to New Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro. At the New Orleans City Council's Aug. 27 Criminal Justice Committee meeting, Cannizzaro unveiled the results of his diversion program, which offers people facing misdemeanors or low-level felony convictions an opportunity to receive an education, employment and, if applicable, substance abuse and mental health counseling to avoid jail time and a criminal record.
The DA's office dismisses the cases of participants who complete the voluntary 10- to 24-month program — which has had 3,971 participants since Cannizzaro took office nearly six years ago. More than 300 people were enrolled as of January 2013.
"Sometimes we see individuals who say, 'You know what, this is too hard for me. I would rather go to court, get my probation and move on,'" Cannizzaro said. "That's offensive to me. Our purpose is to prevent people from getting into the system. If they take [what they see as] the easy way out ... there's a recidivism rate of about 60 percent."
Eligible participants are mostly nonviolent offenders typically charged with theft or criminal damage to property (less than $500), or possession of marijuana or drug paraphernalia. "No one comes in with their first offense as a crime of violence, near universally," Cannizzaro said.
Of the program's 3,971 participants, 15 percent dropped out and 12 percent failed the program. Of the current participants, 167 are ages 17-25, and 96 are 26-35. More than 200 participants are black men. The program's participants closely mirror people entering Criminal District Court, Cannizzaro said.
Under Andree Mattix, the DA's director of social services and the program supervisor, the program employs 13 diversionary employees, 10 counselors, two mentors and one screener. While participants must pay a fee of $200, Cannizzaro said that fee is waived for participants "who truly cannot pay." The program also spends $100 a year on bus tokens, which are kept for emergencies for people who can't check in at the program's office due to a lack of transportation. "We're out (of tokens) right now," Mattix said. "We're not going to send you back (to court) for that if you're calling and making an effort. ... If we're working harder than you, you will be sent back."