Graduates of New Municipal Court Diversion Program Get Second Chance For a Better Future

On Friday, August 8th, 2014, Municipal Court's new diversion program—CrossRoads Diversion—celebrated the graduation of its first five participants. Instituted June 2014, CrossRoads Diversion is a pilot diversionary program in Orleans Parish Municipal Court intended to provide an alternative to incarceration and criminal adjudication for those charged with misdemeanor sex worker or sex worker-related offenses. CrossRoads Diversion links participants to social services to empower and enable them to make substantive and healthy life choices. The first class of five completed their sessions and their charges will be dismissed. CrossRoads Diversion currently has 33 participants in the program.

"In my courtroom, we've come to understand that this is not a victimless crime. These women are victims of trauma, abuse, and poverty, and it's my belief that with the right resources, they can empower themselves to make substantive changes to their lives," says Municipal Court Chief Judge, Desiree Charbonnet. CrossRoads Diversion participants are reviewed in a special court setting by Chief Judge Charbonnet. Eligible candidates must be charged with a misdemeanor sex worker-related offense, must not currently be on probation or parole, and must have no violent convictions in the last five years. All candidates must also have a current, local address.

Upon acceptance into the program, candidates are released from jail and report to Women With A Vision (WWAV), a local community organizer and service provider, whose mission is to improve the lives of marginalized women, their families, and communities by addressing the social conditions that hinder their health and well-being. "There are many intersecting forces that lead women to engage in sex work: poverty, racism, lack of healthcare, and lack of educational opportunities or job opportunities that provide living wages, and more," says Desiree Evans, Policy and Communications Director for WWVA. "It's our belief at Women With A Vision that incarceration and conviction only serve to exacerbate these problems, cutting people off from the opportunities they need to live full, healthy lives. This program offers women access to support, resources, and other services that can allow new opportunities and new possibilities." At WWAV, participants attend educational sessions on harm-reduction, navigating trauma, safer sex, know your rights trainings and many other evidence-based programs. If the participants attend all of their mandated sessions (usually between 6 and 12), their charges are dismissed.

"Diversion frees up time and resources so that our prosecutors can focus on bringing justice to greater public safety concerns," says Charlene Larche-Mason, Chief Deputy City Attorney for New Orleans. CrossRoads Diversion offers treatment and services to participants who pose a low threat to public safety. Participants would otherwise sit in jail without services, costing the City of New Orleans money and resources better spent on more serious crime.

"The Orleans Public Defenders Office lacks adequate, stable and reliable funding. So what few resources we have should not be wasted," says Jee Park, Deputy Chief Defender for the Orleans Public Defenders Office (OPD). By diverting the cases from the ordinary process, OPD does not have to commit expensive lawyer time and office resources to preparing these cases for trial and sentencing. "CrossRoads Diversion, with its focus on service and treatment, saves our office time and money while potentially improving the lives of our clients."

CrossRoads Diversion is a project of the Racial Justice Improvement Project (RJIP). The RJIP is funded by a grant from the Bureau of Justice Administration and the American Bar Association. The local New Orleans RJIP Task Force is made up of key stakeholders in the criminal justice system: Chief Judge Desiree M. Charbonnet, Mark Burton of the District Attorney's Office, Charlene Larche-Mason of the City Attorney's Office, Jee Park and Jacob McCarty of the Orleans Public Defenders Office, Deon Haywood of Women With A Vision and Sgt. Anthony Rome of the New Orleans Police Department.

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