July 2021

2 men have helped 400 Columbus-area offenders on diversion turns things around in mayor’s courts

Courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch
By Marc Kovac
July 30, 2021

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, you’ll probably find Derrick Owens and Kevin Miller in mayor’s courts in Whitehall and Reynoldsburg, respectively.

At each location, the two men make contact with residents charged with low-level offenses — for many, it’s their first time facing criminal counts — and provide an option for avoiding present convictions and potentially preventing future ones.

For hundreds of residents who have taken advantage of their diversion program, it’s meant a positive experience in the criminal justice system.

Miller said the participants say, “We thought that we were going to come here and be told that we have a drug problem and to stop smoking weed. And they come here and find out that it’s something completely different.”

Owens added, “We have an opportunity to give them a different process because something positive happened in court.”

The two men are involved in Owens’ namesake business, the Derrick L. Owens Group LLP, which has received funding from Franklin County over the past couple of years to help reduce recidivism rates among those who are charged with crimes.

Their contract with the county — the board of commissioners recently approved two resolutions that included a total of about $125,000 in funding for the Owens Group to continue its work — is one of a number of smaller contracts that seek to address crime and other issues that can affect families for generations.

“Nobody wakes up one day and decides, ‘I want to get my license suspended’ or ‘I want to end up in a situation where I can’t afford to live, I don’t know how I’m going to pay my next bill.’ Nobody wakes up with that to be the desire,” said Ruchelle Pride, who heads the county’s Office of Justice Policy and Programs.

“Something did happen that shouldn’t have or something that should have happened didn’t,” Pride said. “It’s about figuring out what that is and connecting those dots and supporting them to take that step forward… That intervention has to happen sooner versus later.”

According to Bart Logan, spokesman for Franklin County Job and Family Services, the Owens Group has worked with more than 400 residents since being contracted by the county. In all but two of those cases, those involved have had criminal charges dismissed — and the recidivism rate for participants is close to zero.

“We want to go in early, we want to interrupt that pipeline …,” said Vivian Turner, assistant director of Franklin County JFS. “We’re just very excited about doing something different that actually is showing great results.”

Owens and Miller have been involved in intervention work for years — initially through the Columbus Urban League — before partnering in the Owens Group. Since 2016, Owens has been receiving referrals from prosecutors in Whitehall, and later Reynoldsburg, to offer alternatives to conviction for people facing possession of marijuana, driving under suspension, petty theft and other lower-level offenses.

It’s a different approach than other intervention programs, Owens said. Residents facing criminal charges are offered the opportunity to take a six-hour intervention course and receive other assistance, including referrals for housing, substance abuse and other services, if needed.

“There’s research that shows that even a brief intervention with someone who has an alcohol or other drug issue can sometimes be just as effective and change the behavior as treatment can be,” said Miller, a former prevention coordinator at the Urban League before joining the Owens Group.

For example, Miller said what they found with providing brief intervention in marijuana cases was that “we were actually able to keep people from coming back a second or a third time for the same old things.”

Sometimes, residents need help getting their driver’s license reinstated. Sometimes, they’re dealing with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues that require additional attention.

And sometimes, they just need a job. Owens said he’s brought employers to mayor’s courts to talk to offenders and (potentially) offer them employment on the spot.

Those involved don’t have to plead guilty first to take advantage of the program, Owens said.

“We don’t want them to be stuck with these charges. We know these charges are going to come back (on them) later,” he said. “… We catch them right in the very beginning — let’s keep this off your record right now.”

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