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Idaho investing millions into pre-prosecution diversion programs

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Idaho leaders want to get people struggling with mental illness and substance use disorders help instead of punishment.

The Idaho Department of Correction is offering $2.5 million in grant funding to state and local entities for pre-prosecution diversion. The funding comes from Governor Little's "Leading Idaho" plan.

Generally, a pre-prosecution diversion program will allow someone suspected of a low-level non-violent offense, struggling with mental illness or addiction to access treatment services without having to go to jail or be charged with a crime.

The department of correction says these kind of programs save taxpayers money and make our communities safer in the long run.

"Jail is just not ideal for an addict. It's not ideal for somebody struggling with mental illness," said Tyson Hawkins.

After serving two tours in Iraq, he wasn't the same when he came home.

"I had been self-medicating with drugs and alcohol for years after the military. What was working wasn't working anymore, so that escalated and got really bad really fast," Hawkins said. "It was horrible. I was homeless... I was totally disconnected from everybody that mattered to me."

He wound up with multiple felony drug charges and spent about seven months in jail.

Eventually, he was offered a plea agreement, and he took it.

He had to enter into the V.A. treatment court, get drug tested almost daily, get counseling, go to court hearings and check in regularly with probation officers, and sometimes community service.

Those two and a half years turned his life around. He's been clean for almost six years and has no felony convictions on his record.

Most people who go to treatment court aren't as lucky as Tyson.

They'll often walk away from the program with criminal charges on their record, making it exponentially more difficult to land a job or find housing.

"Having them have that opportunity to make that commitment to change, turn their life around and then not have their criminal charges be a life sentence is incredible, and we know programs like this work," Hawkins said.

Pre-prosecution diversion avoids the criminal justice system and charges altogether.

"If you're running into a housing market that won't take you as an applicant, or you're trying to apply for jobs that are immediately disqualifying you based on your criminal record, or the nature of your charges won't let you be a dad or mom," Hawkins said. "People in that boat often are like, 'Why? Why even try? Everything that matters or I care about is out of my reach now.'"

Each program is unique to each person, some need to get a GED or find a job in addition to completing treatment.

Local counties and entities receiving this grant funding will ultimately decide what qualifies a person to get into these programs. It'll vary in different parts of the state.

Because it costs taxpayers about $65 to house someone in jail per day, plus the cost of prosecution and supervision and it only costs about $3,000 to $5,000 to get someone through a treatment program, leaders at IDOC say it just makes sense to direct more resources to treatment.

Christine Starr, a former prosecutor and the chief of staff at IDOC says she'd often see people coming through the court system, who she wanted desperately to help, in need of mental health services.

"And the only way to provide that really through the system and have those revenues there to help that person often times is just going through the criminal justice system, and it's really not a good outcome. For us as a society, it doesn't make us safer. It actually makes us safer to address this problem on the front end and get people the help they need," Starr said.

That's the help Tyson got and is forever grateful for.

IDOC wants to get its grant funding out as soon as possible. It wants to help local jurisdictions and their pre-diversion programs reach more people like Tyson.

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They're asking state and local entities in partnership with providers to apply as soon as possible.

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