CASA GRANDE, Ariz. – It was a Friday night, and Aaron Robinette was doing what plenty of 22-year-olds do in tedious rural towns: hanging out with friends in a park, laughing and lounging on a picnic table in the crisp desert air, smoking a little weed.

Then the police showed up. They asked Robinette whether he had any drugs. He said he did – about $10 worth of marijuana. He was taken to the station, cited and told he’d likely get a chance to avoid a conviction. That was in 2014.

For nearly two years, nothing came of it. Robinette worked odd jobs and pitched in for rent at the weatherworn ranch house where he grew up and still lives with his dad and younger brother.

Then the letter arrived.

It offered Robinette the option of enrolling in the Pinal County attorney’s diversion program, run by a California-based company. He’d have to write a statement admitting his guilt and agree that it could be used against him in court if he flunked the program. There would be community service, in-person group classes and individual counseling. It would cost $715. Mandatory drug tests would be extra.

If Robinette completed the program, he would not be charged. If he didn’t, he’d face a felony.

“They just flat out tell you, ‘You’ve got to pay this money or else you’re being prosecuted,’ ” said Robinette, now 25. “It was very forceful.”

Even though he knew he couldn’t afford it, he signed up.

Diversion programs gained popularity in the 1970s and are experiencing a resurgence as many states respond to decades of tough-on-crime policies by reducing a host of nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors. Run by courts, prosecutors and sometimes law enforcement, the programs channel offenders into services meant to address the root causes of their conduct, such as substance abuse or mental illness, allowing them to avoid conviction.

Intervening before a case goes to court – or before charges are even filed – improves job prospects by keeping incidents from showing up on background checks. Diverting cases early also saves time and money for prosecutors, courts and public defenders.

At its best, diversion helps keep offenders from cycling back through the criminal justice system by tailoring services to their needs. Success doesn’t depend on ability to pay. And it is offered only in cases deemed provable in court.

But an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found many instances in which programs administered by CorrectiveSolutions, a for-profit company dogged for years by consumer rights litigation, did not hew to those best practices.

Dozens of interviews; documents including emails, program reports and agreements; and court records paint a picture of a company pushing hard to build its diversion brand as its embattled legacy business – running bad check restitution programs for prosecutors – succumbed to legal settlements, continued litigation and the fading practice of writing checks.

The company declined to disclose a current tally of clients, but a 2015 internal document obtained by Reveal listed 138 programs in 17 states. While most were geared to bad check writers, 30 provided diversion services for more serious offenses.

Funded entirely by offenders, the programs layered on extra fees for drug tests, class rescheduling, payment plans, late payments, underpayments and even overpayments.

Meanwhile, the panoply of community services CorrectiveSolutions promised to offer to participants did not always materialize. In some jurisdictions, the company failed to honor its pledge to assess offenders’ economic status and dole out assistance from indigent fund accounts it manages for prosecutors. Other jurisdictions, including Pinal County, declined the company’s offer to set aside additional funds to help offenders who could not pay.

In farming out the program, some prosecutors did not monitor even basic results, while others diverted cases that likely would not have been provable in court. And although CorrectiveSolutions claims its programs reduce recidivism, a top executive conceded that it never has tracked that metric.

Chief Operating Officer and general counsel Thomas Jonsson, the son of the CEO, said the company pioneered added benefits such as referrals to community services and an indigent fund and takes pride in them. Its diversion programs, he added, cost offenders less than some diversion programs that are run in-house.

Prosecutors, he said, “go to us because they know that they can trust us and we do a good job.”

For Robinette, that trust was shattered quickly.

He told his CorrectiveSolutions case manager that he had a problem with heroin. He had “dibble-dabbled” for a few years and now felt his addiction getting the best of him. Diversion could have helped steer Robinette to the substance abuse treatment he needed.

It did not work out that way.

Robinette’s counseling sessions turned out to be only with his case manager, a former police officer, rather than with a trained professional. Sessions were brief, Robinette said, and focused on reviewing whether he had paid, attended his classes and done his community service.

The frequent calls he received from CorrectiveSolutions’ California call center mentioned “the money first and foremost,” he said.

And when Robinette did get help for his addiction – on his own – he was booted from the program.

“No show no call due to being in mental health hospital,” the failure report states.

Months of limbo would follow.

Criminal justice and private profit

The pitch from private diversion companies has proved enticing to prosecutors at a time of heavy caseloads and declining budgets.

In many jurisdictions, the programs come with a bonus: Prosecutors’ offices get a cut from each participant’s payments. CorrectiveSolutions even offers an alternative to those with potentially lucrative caseloads that won’t accept the money: It can hire an employee to search dockets for eligible cases for them.

But for-profit players operate without public oversight. And government and nonprofit program administrators working to hone best practices in the field say the companies are absent from the conversation.

Those whose work is nationally recognized stress that an individualized approach is key, as is research on outcomes. While that costs money, it aims to bring savings in the long run by reducing recidivism.

A licensed professional counselor, Mark Kammerer oversees a dozen diversion programs that are free to offenders and 20 rigorous drug and mental health treatment courts for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office in Illinois. Prosecutors screen every case, he said, to determine “where people would be best served based on their history and their clinical needs.”

Kammerer’s office is solicited regularly by for-profits but makes it clear: “We aren’t going to do that. … We don’t want anybody to accept or reject the offer based on ability to pay.”

CorrectiveSolutions is not the only player running offender-funded diversion programs, but it bills itself as the “leading administrator” in the field.

The company’s roots date back to 1987, when it launched under the name American Corrective Counseling Services as “a bad check collection agency that would operate under the auspices of county district attorneys,” according to federal court records in Pennsylvania. Prosecutors got a cut of the fees the company collected; the diversion programs morphed from that model.

Letters sent on district attorneys’ letterhead warned bad check writers of the consequences of prosecution – an unlikely occurrence – unless they paid to enroll in a financial accountability class. The cost often dwarfed the bad check amounts. Bouncing a check generally is not a crime without knowledge of insufficient funds. But in most instances, prosecutors never reviewed cases to determine intent. Consumer advocates filed the first lawsuit in 2000 alleging that the company violated statutes governing debt collection and fair business practices. And the lawsuits never stopped.

In 2009, as American Corrective Counseling Services battled an array of costly class-action lawsuits, its owner-investors took it through bankruptcy, wiping out pending litigation. It emerged as National Corrective Group, doing business as CorrectiveSolutions.

But legal pressures mounted again, and by 2014, the company was sold to Mats Jonsson, who had worked there since 2008. The check business was “decreasing at an alarming rate,” said his son, Thomas. So Mats Jonsson pushed to expand the company’s diversion arm. As with the bad check programs, the largest fees are levied for educational services.

The company’s website says it administers programs for over 140 jurisdictions in 17 states. Of those tailored to misdemeanor and felony offenders, nine provided statistics to Reveal that showed they’d made more than 37,000 referrals.

A number of program participants around the country said they were grateful for the opportunity to avoid a conviction. Some said they enjoyed the classes, which rely on what the company calls proprietary “evidence-based behavioral change instruction.”

In Pinal County, Amanda Buchardt was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor after a teenager she was responsible for was caught shoplifting while she was present. Buchardt paid about $800 over eight months to avoid a conviction – something she believes “would be feasible for anyone to have completed unless they were making excuses not to.”

Buchardt said her CorrectiveSolutions class was very interactive and she had fun doing her community service. She needed no social services or treatment, could make her payments and was not likely to cycle back into the system.

For offenders like these, said Spurgeon Kennedy, board vice president of the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies, for-profit programs can pull off a “quick and dirty” sanction. But Kennedy said diversion serves its overarching purpose of keeping offenders from returning only if it tailors its services to help those with underlying problems.

“Unfortunately, if you’re looking at anything that’s rehabilitative in nature, that’s where these programs are falling short,” he said.

CorrectiveSolutions states in proposals and promotional materials that its programs reduce recidivism. But Thomas Jonsson said the company does not have access to the data needed to measure that. Rather, he said, the claim is backed by its “evidence-based course curriculum” – material that it purchases from two firms.

Jonsson declined to identify one of them, citing proprietary reasons. The other, The Change Companies, markets illustrated notebooks that prompt participants to ponder the reasons for their behavior. The journals retail in bulk for $4.50 apiece. Agreements with prosecutors say CorrectiveSolutions provides the notebooks to participants for $25 each. Replacing a lost one costs $10.

Fees can pile up. “Students arriving late may not be admitted,” state letters sent to participants in Sonoma County, California, warning of a $25 rescheduling fee for missed classes.

On a recent Saturday at the company’s office in Sonoma County, the facilitator locked the door at 8:01 a.m. When a young man dashed up two minutes later, clutching his documents in the rain, he was told he was out of luck. He had driven 100 miles to get there.

Little help for those who need it

When Aaron Robinette got his letter in December 2015, he came up with the $45 enrollment fee, then sunk into a depression. When his required urine test came up positive for opiates, he claims his case manager threw the test in the trash and offered him no referrals for drug counseling. He felt doomed.

It was his brother who broke down the bathroom door at 6 a.m. on a Tuesday in early February 2016. He found Robinette on the floor, blue. He had overdosed on heroin.

On a bright fall day, Robinette sat on a green metal porch swing, snipping the filters off his dad’s Marlboro Ultra Lights with scissors and chain smoking.

Aaron Robinette says he struggled to stay clean during his diversion program experience, but he’s sought help for anxiety and began taking medication that should reduce his urges to self-medicate. Credit: David Sanders for Reveal Credit: CREDIT: David Sanders for Reveal

Robinette said he takes responsibility for his drug use. But the program that was supposed to guide him compounded his despair by failing him as he tried to get clean. After the overdose, he spent two stints in psychiatric facilities and vowed to go to rehab. During his first stay, his social worker called CorrectiveSolutions’ local program director, Ellen Gilbo, to explain his situation, he said. Robinette was on the phone, too.

“You do what you need to do,” he recalled Gilbo telling him. “You get better.”

But when he visited her office in March with his hospital paperwork to say he was headed to rehab, he said Gilbo told him that his case was out of her hands. It already had been referred for prosecution. The reason: He had missed his check-ins while he was hospitalized.

Gilbo declined to comment.

Decisions on whether to terminate someone from the program are the county prosecutor’s, CorrectiveSolutions stresses. In Pinal County, decisions to pull the plug often were reached in consultation with company headquarters, not with Gilbo, resulting in painful misunderstandings.

Gilbo quit about five months after Robinette flunked the program. “I had to move,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “I was about to explode in the spirit.”

When Robinette got out of rehab in the summer, he landed a custodial job at the local hospital. He attended training and got his badge. Then his new employer did a records check. Prosecutors had filed a felony charge against him when he failed the program. He lost the job before he started. A warrant, he learned, had been issued for his arrest.

In court last August, he again was offered diversion with CorrectiveSolutions. He signed up again. This time, he was not required to drug test, he said. Considering his admitted addiction, that seemed “almost like they’re giving me a free pass through the program just to take my money.”

CorrectiveSolutions’ fees are set in consultation with prosecutors. Pinal County’s programs were lengthy – six to 12 months – requiring in-person classes and monthly monitoring visits that drove up costs. The rural county’s lack of public transportation increased the burden on low-income offenders.

As of last spring, company reports obtained from the county show, fewer than a third of the people referred to CorrectiveSolutions before charges were filed against them completed the program. More than half didn’t enroll.

CorrectiveSolutions knew the program conditions were “onerous,” Thomas Jonsson said. Once company officials saw the consistently poor enrollment and completion rates, they suggested adjustments to the county prosecutor. The program length was halved, making it cheaper.

Asked why the company didn’t weigh in at the start, Jonsson answered: “I don’t think it’s on us to tell the DA what to do.”

On Robinette’s first go-around, things fell apart so fast that he never paid more than the enrollment fee. At $325, his new program cost was less than half the initial one. He borrowed the money from his dad, completed his class and community service, and by the end of September, he thought he was done.

Except he wasn’t.

Robinette’s fees included four months of “monitoring.” So even though there was nothing left to do, he would have to wait until the end of the year. With the pending felony, he couldn’t find work.

Mounting troubles, legal and financial

In its lengthy proposal to Pinal County, CorrectiveSolutions promised a hands-on system of referrals. Program staff would “work extensively in the community to establish relationships with local social service providers” and “fully integrate a network of professional guidance and support for offenders,” read the document, submitted by Mats Jonsson in April 2014. Another section pledged that staff would forge ties with treatment providers before the program launched.

The proposal made no mention of a class-action settlement finalized 12 days earlier by a federal judge in California – one in which CorrectiveSolutions agreed to pay $3.2 million to check writers in California and Pennsylvania. Also absent: the fact that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was deep into its own probe of the company’s check programs.

Then in March 2015, a month after the Pinal County program’s launch, the consumer bureau filed an enforcement action for deceptive and intimidating practices in the bad check operation.

CorrectiveSolutions maintains it followed the law. But in a settlement, the company agreed not to pose as prosecutors, threaten prosecution or send out letters without prosecutor review. New letters had to state that many cases are never prosecuted.

There was a fine, too, of $50,000: The consumer watchdog said the company and Mats Jonsson were in such “poor financial condition” that they couldn’t pay more. But the bureau dipped into penalties paid by other companies to compensate CorrectiveSolutions’ victims. At $23.3 million, it was the second-largest disbursement in the fund’s history.

The promised close relationships with local providers in Pinal County never materialized. Instead, staff compiled printouts with lists of social service organizations culled from internet searches and stacked them neatly on a folding table in the lobby.

A sliding scale that doesn’t slide

In 2011, CorrectiveSolutions already was running a bad check program in Sonoma County, California, when it greatly expanded its portfolio, adding misdemeanor diversion programs as well as a program for first-time drug offenders, named for the state statute that created it: PC 1000. CorrectiveSolutions boasts on its website that local staff “ensure that the program meets all of the requirements of the PC-1000 statute.”

But the program routinely violates one key requirement: fee exemptions for those who can’t afford to pay.

Austin Greenwood paid the price.

A map of Greenwood’s inner life is inked on his body. Sea turtles are for freedom. A wolf gazes up at a moon and clouds created with ink mixed with some of his mother’s ashes. She committed suicide when he was 16.

He was 21 and living under a bridge when in 2015 he was arrested and charged with possession of a methamphetamine pipe. He entered the PC 1000 program, but no one offered financial assistance. Today, he is living in a trailer with his girlfriend on her parents’ property. He has been sober for a little more than a year – no thanks to CorrectiveSolutions. In fact, he has a criminal record for the pipe possession, which he might have avoided if the company had performed as it is required to under California law.

The company took over for a nonprofit that had run the county’s diversion programs for decades. Andriya Glessner, who oversaw programs for Santa Rosa-based California Human Development, had worked to help participants get high school-equivalency diplomas, pursue vocational trades, find housing, study English and receive counseling for substance abuse and mental illness.

“The whole program was designed around improving a person’s dignity and self-respect,” she said. “I can’t remember the number of times I drove somebody to detox.”

Austin Greenwood pets one of his chickens outside the trailer he is living in with his girlfriend in Windsor, Calif. Greenwood said his for-profit diversion program felt like a restaurant that prepares the same meal for everyone, no matter their needs or desires. Credit: Andrew Burton for Reveal Credit: Andrew Burton for The Center for Investigative Reporting.

Reveal found several former recipients who said they paid nothing, and Glessner said, “I can’t think of a homeless person who ever paid a dime.”

The contract cost the county $80,000 a year. As the recession pinched local governments, the county in 2011 put the contract out to bid. CorrectiveSolutions’ offer was enticing: Not only would the program be free to the county, but it claimed that District Attorney Jill Ravitch’s office stood to make as much as $100,000 a year on a $50-per-participant fee. CorrectiveSolutions describes it as an “administrative fee” or a reimbursement of prosecutor costs.

The total proved to be much lower than promised: about $178,000 over five years. The indigent fund is collected from the DA’s cut of offender payments – $15 from each $50 fee. The company promises to assess participants for need and dole out help accordingly. In PC 1000, state law requires it.

But disbursements dropped sharply soon after CorrectiveSolutions took them over. When Mats Jonsson bought the company, they dipped some more.

Then in 2015, as CorrectiveSolutions won a second three-year contract, they sunk to next to nothing. A new clause – indicated by two asterisks – that said indigent funds would be capped at $3,000 a month. Any excess would “be paid to CorrectiveSolutions.”

Thomas Jonsson said he doesn’t recall the contract change, though he remembers that “we changed something.” He acknowledged that PC 1000 participants often are homeless. But indigent fund disbursements in that program plummeted the most. In 2011, they made up 22 percent of the total CorrectiveSolutions collected from offenders. By last year, enrollment in the drug diversion program reached 217, but the company doled out $1,178 in indigent fund assistance – 1.3 percent of earnings.

California law for the PC 1000 diversion program requires that fees be exempted for those who can’t pay. This chart shows indigent assistance as a percentage of PC 1000 revenue plummeted after CorrectiveSolutions took over Sonoma County’s program in 2011. Credit: Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office reports provided by CorrectiveSolutions

By the time of Greenwood’s arrest, he had been homeless for about a year. His street nickname was “Ducky,” for the duck-patterned pajama pants he often wore as he rode his bike through town on sleepless nights, high.

The drug life, he said, enabled him “to survive out there.” He envisioned better things in his future, “but getting there was the problem.”

At first, he said, the program seemed like “a really good step.” In court, he was told only that there would be fees. They turned out to be $740. Greenwood had to scrounge up the nonrefundable $40 for enrollment before a case manager – who no longer works for the company – explained requirements.

At his intake, he said, he told her he was sleeping on the streets.

“She didn’t say anything about housing; she didn’t say anything about shelters,” he said. “She didn’t say anything about any, like, grants or support funds. There was nothing regarding any help.”

Greenwood said he was told to bring $20 cash every time he showed up for an individual check-in or group meeting. He did it once or twice a week for about three weeks, he said. Then he couldn’t. So he stopped going.

“I had the realization that if I can’t pay, I’m not going anywhere in my life,” he said as he sat in the workshop where his girlfriend’s dad now is teaching him to weld. “And that means I’m kind of screwed.”

He got hauled in for another drug charge and convicted of his previous one. He got probation, then violated it by testing dirty for meth. Finally, while in custody in June 2016, he heard about drug court – run by Sonoma County Superior Court in partnership with a nonprofit provider – and asked to go. It is the highest tier in the county’s ladder of diversion, with the greatest demands and most rigorous treatment.

Greenwood got in. “It gives me boundaries,” he said. “I’ve got help. I’ve got everything to surround myself in.”

In 2015, Austin Greenwood was homeless when he was arrested and charged with possession of a methamphetamine pipe. He entered a first-time drug offender program administered by CorrectiveSolutions, but no one offered financial assistance as required by California law.
Credit: Andrew Burton for Reveal Credit: Andrew Burton for The Center for Investigative Reporting.

PC 1000 is not designed to be as intensive as drug court. But when California Human Development ran the program, it offered such thorough counseling that Sonoma County Chief Deputy Public Defender Mike Perry likened it to outpatient treatment.

To Greenwood, the current program felt like a restaurant that prepares the same meal for everyone, no matter their needs or desires. One diversion participant told Reveal that her class included underage drinkers, a man who hadn’t paid workers’ comp insurance and three divers who had not promptly tagged their abalone.

Ravitch, the DA, did not respond to an interview request. Assistant District Attorney William Brockley, who oversees the diversion programs, declined one, but responded to written questions: “I have checked in regularly with the courts and defense counsel on the success of the diversion program, and if a problem arises, I have addressed it.”

He did not address questions related to the indigent fund’s decline or the contract change, but said “CorrectiveSolutions has never reported an excess” in the fund.

Deputy Public Defender Melissa Coughlin handles a heavy caseload of nonviolent offenders. She knew that not a single client has been able to access the indigent fund over the past two years – she just didn’t know why.

Coughlin routinely has expressed concerns in court that the cost is too high for her clients, some of whom show up with their belongings in plastic bags. The prosecutor, she said, “always pops up brightly and says there’s a sliding scale.”

Thomas Jonsson said CorrectiveSolutions has recognized that indigent disbursements in some programs, including Sonoma County’s, have been too low. Others have been so high that the funds run into the red. As a result, he said, the company has been tweaking the formula.

To qualify, participants must produce proof that they are on public assistance. And in the PC 1000 program, where many fail because of dirty drug tests or missed classes and appointments, he said the company now applies more indigent funds “at the end of the program than in the beginning” to favor those who have shown they can “commit to the non-fee-related conditions of the program and need the financial assistance to complete.”

Over the past year, he added, the company has initiated an appeals process for those denied help. He declined to explain how it works.

“A lot of this stuff is the secret sauce,” he said. “If we share all of the operational secrets, the trade secrets, then we’re going to have our competitors picking up and doing the exact same thing.”

And when problems arise? CorrectiveSolutions has a ready response.

“We’re at the mercy of the DA,” Jonsson said.

No scrutiny, no oversight

When Dwayne Stewart became district attorney of Glenn County, California, in 2015, he was drowning in misdemeanor matters that his predecessor never filed. So he signed on with CorrectiveSolutions to alleviate the backlog. The company mailed out 460 letters.

The practice of channeling weak cases to diversion – those a DA would otherwise decline to charge or have little chance of winning at trial – is called net widening. It is frowned upon by those working to hone best practices in diversion. But in handing off cases his office had not assessed, that’s what Stewart did.

Within days, he was mobbed with calls.

His office sent CorrectiveSolutions list after list of cases that shouldn’t have been referred. Some had passed the statute of limitations. A few already had been charged. Some involved juveniles.

Some recipients of those letters paid the money to take the class. A law professor and former prosecutor reviewed one alleged battery case and said it was highly unlikely that any prosecutor would have filed charges. According to a sheriff’s report, it involved a parent who gave a teacher a “nudge or a poke” at a school board meeting to get his attention.

“It’s a shakedown,” said the parent, Froylan Mendoza, an educator himself who paid $330 because he couldn’t risk a misdemeanor conviction. “I pretty much could have lost everything.”

Thomas Jonsson said the company was “very, very disappointed” to learn Stewart had not properly reviewed cases ahead of time.

In 2014, California voters approved Proposition 47, a ballot measure that reduced a host of felony offenses to misdemeanors. The shift left DAs desperate for new ways to hold minor offenders accountable – without paying to prosecute.

North Carolina’s General Assembly had made a similar move a year earlier, while also gutting prosecutor budgets.

A slideshow prepared by CorrectiveSolutions for North Carolina prosecutors likened those interested in for-profit diversion but worried about backlash from state court administrators to penguins fearful of tiger sharks. It went on to assure them that state officials were on board. Credit: CorrectiveSolutions Credit: CREDIT: CorrectiveSolutions

Most district attorneys that retain CorrectiveSolutions need approval from elected boards of supervisors, and the county counsel reviews proposed contracts. In North Carolina, the state Administrative Office of the Courts manages the judiciary, allocating prosecutor budgets and, usually, tracking vendor agreements. But not in this case: Two DAs who launched diversion programs did so without signed contracts and with no apparent oversight.

They paid nothing – and received the added gift of a paid helper: CorrectiveSolutions embedded employees in the prosecutors’ offices to search dockets for eligible cases.

The state agency declined interview requests and did not respond to written questions about its stance on the programs. A spokeswoman said CorrectiveSolutions was not in its vendor database. A subsequent search for documents or emails about the programs, she said, had turned up nothing.

Yet it appears the state agency is aware of the ties to CorrectiveSolutions.

Emails provided by the DAs showed state officials granted the CorrectiveSolutions employees state email accounts, access to state criminal justice databases and, in at least one case, a state computer.

And in a presentation to newly elected colleagues in late 2014, District Attorney Seth Edwards – who represents a five-county jurisdiction in the northeast and was first to partner with the company – promised that the judiciary’s administrators had no objections to outsourced diversion.

In his recent interview, CorrectiveSolutions’ Thomas Jonsson called the state agency “a huge fan.”

The DAs for both jurisdictions that signed on with the company told Reveal that they were satisfied with CorrectiveSolutions. Each also seemed to understand that going with a private contractor could obscure information that would otherwise be public.

CorrectiveSolutions pledges to regularly report to prosecutors how much money it has given to indigent participants. In Edwards’ district, a number of participants told Reveal that they had not been assessed for ability to pay or told about the fund.

Asked for the reports, Edwards wrote in an email that he did not “possess any information” regarding the indigent fund, noting that the company administers it. He declined to obtain it, instead telling Reveal to direct questions to CorrectiveSolutions.

Jonsson did not respond to a request for the reports.

District Attorney Todd Williams represents Buncombe County, home to artsy Asheville. He was second to sign on in North Carolina. Because the program required no approval, emails show, he was able to launch it over fierce objections from his district’s top judge and defense attorneys, who expressed concerns that low-income offenders would be left behind and that fines previously channeled to public programs now would be enriching an out-of-state company.

By choosing a private firm, Williams said in an interview, he had helped protect the privacy of participants: “They can go through diversion,” he said, “without it being handled by a government agency that is subject to the sunshine laws.”

Second thoughts

Thomas Jonsson said the company has seen tremendous growth in diversion programs as prosecutors recognize that low-level offenders can be held accountable without charge or conviction.

The DAs currently using CorrectiveSolutions, he added, care about the programs “immensely, and they know that the alternatives to not having a program would be far worse for the community than having them.”

But not everyone is satisfied.

Mike Perry, Sonoma County’s chief deputy public defender, called the lack of assistance for those without means unconstitutional and said the contract should go out to bid again – with greater oversight. As for requiring indigent offenders to show proof that they receive public assistance, “basically what that is,” he said, “is putting up barriers.”

Neither his office nor the courts require such proof, said Perry, who as the public defender for drug court has many clients who aren’t on public assistance yet and are “living in cars, living in bushes.”

CorrectiveSolutions’ agreement with Sonoma County runs through summer 2018. But William Brockley, the assistant district attorney, said in his statement that the county was putting the contract out to bid. No decision has been reached yet on whether the company will continue operating there.

In Arizona, Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles, who brought in CorrectiveSolutions, was voted out in August. Before he left, he declined an interview. The new county attorney, Kent Volkmer, was happy to discuss the program.

His priority, he said, is to ensure participants get access to meaningful services.

This spring, he decided to bring diversion in-house and model the program after a neighboring county’s system, which assesses offenders, channels them into tiered programs based on their needs and tracks outcomes. The contract with CorrectiveSolutions for new cases terminated May 26, though Volkmer said the company will offer online classes for a fee to some in-house diversion participants.

Aaron Robinette’s experience – failing the program when he tried to get help and losing a job due to the pending felony – “bothers me,” Volkmer said. “If we’re not doing all we can to facilitate that treatment, then we’re not doing our job and diversion’s not providing its intended goal.”

A former defense attorney, Volkmer has experience working with those dealing with addiction.

“I tip my hat to the young man,” he said. “It’s usually those bumps in the road that actually cause the relapse. At some point, you say,  ‘Screw it.’ That’s when you go get high again.”

Robinette did stumble. Staying clean while idled without work was a struggle. But he has a letter in hand now from the court saying his case is dismissed. He recently sought help for anxiety and began taking medication that should reduce his urges to self-medicate.

In February, he got a job manufacturing parts for heating and air conditioning systems.

Told about Volkmer’s tip of the hat to him, Robinette paused, then said quietly, “I’m grateful that he acknowledged that.”