Washtenaw County wins federal funds to launch criminal diversion program for young family caregivers

Washtenaw County will launch a new program designed to prevent criminalization of young parents and family caregivers, offering low-level offenders a chance to have criminal charges dropped after participating in supportive services.

The Specialized Alternative to Sentencing Support (SASS) program is a collaboration between Washtenaw County's 22nd Circuit Court, Prosecutor's Office, and Public Defender's Office, as well as the Ypsilanti nonprofit Corner Health Center. Caregivers aged 12-25 who are deemed not to pose a risk to public safety or their families will be eligible for the program. This means that individuals accused of crimes such as homicide, sexual assault, armed robbery, stalking, intimate-partner violence, or child abuse will be ineligible for SASS.

Those who elect to participate in SASS will be assigned a case manager at Corner Health Center, who will develop an individualized six- to 12-month plan for them. The plan may include substance use treatment, therapy or other behavioral health treatment, workforce training, or other services. Every participant will also be assigned a primary care physician for themselves and their family, and pregnant participants will be assigned an OB-GYN. If the offender completes the program successfully without incurring further criminal charges, the charges against them will be dismissed.

"We see people come through the system who aren't necessarily a public safety risk, but they're shouldering a lot of responsibilities," says Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit. "Either they've got a young child and are parents for the very first time, or maybe they're taking care of a sibling or a relative, an older parent. Oftentimes they need resources. They need help to get them on the right track so they can manage these responsibilities. It's a really unique set of circumstances, and I believe we should have programs tailored to individual circumstances."

SASS received a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Washtenaw County was one of just three communities nationwide to receive such a grant.

"I think the DOJ's decision to fund it, for frankly a smaller community like Washtenaw, really speaks to the value in addressing this unique set of needs," Savit says.

SASS is expected to serve 180 people over the next three years. Savit anticipates that the program will have major long-term positive effects.

"Having [young caregivers] serve a 30-day jail sentence and the like can really disrupt families and cause intergenerational effects," he says. "So giving them that offramp, giving them those resources, asking them to do the hard work to get on the right track – if we're successful at that and we connect that family to resources, it's not going to just be beneficial for the young person. It's going to have intergenerational effects."

Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.