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Court alternatives that spare a criminal record cost you hundreds and put a price on justice

The door of a courtroom
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
Diversion can cost hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars.

Diversion is a popular alternative to burdening someone with a criminal record and possible jail time, but the fees that come with it can mean your wealth determines the type of justice available.

TOPEKA, Kansas — A court process that keeps criminal charges off someone’s record can charge hundreds of dollars for the possibility of a clean slate.

Critics say some Kansas courts that charge heavily to cover the costs of diversion programs make a two-tiered system of justice favoring the rich. But cities and counties that run the programs say they do what they can to make it accessible.

Diversion offers a defendant a deal to avoid a criminal record through community service or other forms of restitution. Prosecutors typically offer the option after arrest but before conviction.

Some diversions stay on people’s criminal record, but defense attorneys and prosecutors largely agree that it can lighten loads on the courts and jails while sparing people accused of crimes the cost and stigma that comes with a criminal conviction.

The Kansas News Service contacted a handful of cities to see how much money they collected from people in diversion programs last year. Here’s what they reported:

  • Wichita had 3,595 diversion applications for $1.2 million.
  • Manhattan had 833 diversions for $193,883.
  • Lyon County had 456 diversions for $111,575.
  • Garden City had 182 diversions for $55,130. (This number is higher than usual because courts caught up from COVID backlogs.)
  • Pittsburg had 106 diversions for $57,644.

Regardless of the city’s size, each has a similar trend: The total money gained from diversions was a small fraction of the municipalities’ budget even if the hundreds of dollars a defendant owed might be daunting to people with low incomes.

State law has some requirements for diversions, but cities and counties have a lot of say in the final cost.

In Garden City, it’s $350 for criminal or DUI cases and $150 for traffic cases. The price of a DUI diversion jumps in Pittsburg, where that’ll cost $1,174. In Lyon County, fees run anywhere from $100 to $500. For the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, the price is lower, between $50-$130.

But Joanna Weiss, the co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, wants diversion to be free.

“For most people going through the criminal legal system, any amount is the difference between paying your bills and supporting your family and not being able to,” she said.

A survey of 980 people by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice found that 38% of people with court debt committed another crime to pay it off. In other cases, 83% passed on necessities like rent, food and medical bills to pay it off and 50% were sent to jail for failure to pay.

That study also found that low-income people were also less likely to get the option of diversion.

In some cases, Weiss said, someone can’t afford to pay and doesn’t use the program. That could mean a criminal record for someone who could have avoided one. A criminal background hanging around makes it harder to find jobs or apartments, and a clean slate would remove those barriers.

Weiss argues that diversion is a function of government and should be funded by the government — not by the people using the program. She said diversion programs save taxpayers money by keeping people out of jail or being further involved with the criminal justice system.

“That’s good for everyone,” she said, “which is why everyone needs to be paying for it.”

Cities running diversion programs also know the benefits.

Everyone who spoke to the Kansas News Service said these programs can have a positive impact on someone’s life. In Lyon County, that means diversion fee waivers. Other municipalities created payment plans to allow time to settle the debt.

In Manhattan, Kansas, city attorney Katie Jackson is especially proud of the program. Someone on diversion can either pay off the total or work off the total through community service. People get a $10 credit for every hour they work. Someone with a $200 diversion, for example, would work around 20 hours until they have paid off the diversion.

They have up to a year to work off the fees and can request extensions.

“That’s an equalizer for a lot of people,” Jackson said.

Megan Lovely, communications manager for the city of Wichita, said diversion programs cost money to run and the fees collected offset those costs. The costs of the programs vary city by city, but Lovely said paying staff who run it is the bulk of the expense.

“Diversion programs cost money to facilitate,” she said in an email. “The goal is to provide the offender education and/or treatment to help them not reoffend. The benefit to the offender is that the charge does not appear on their record and it is ultimately dismissed.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.
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