Tarrant County Poised to Launch First-of-Its-Kind Diversion Program for First Responders

August 28, 2018

By Tim Ciesco
Published at 4:52 AM CDT on Aug 28, 2018 | Updated at 6:50 AM CDT on Aug 28, 2018

Do first responders who get in trouble with the law deserve a second chance? Leaders in Tarrant County say in some cases, yes.

County Commissioners are expected to approve a first-of-its-kind diversion program on Tuesday that would allow first responders to avoid prison time, if they successfully complete an intensive treatment program.

“Philosophically, not everyone needs to be incarcerated,” said Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson, who supports the program. “Not everyone even needs a conviction. We have a lot of programs in Tarrant County that are aimed at getting deserving people out of the criminal justice system.”

Tarrant County currently has diversion programs in place for both first-time offenders and veterans.

When state lawmakers gave counties the ok to introduce similar programs for first responders last year, Judge Charles Vanover — who presides over the veterans program — approached Wilson about implementing it.

He says he was impressed by the results of the veterans program, which has just a seven percent recidivism rate, and felt that police officers, firefighters, and EMT’s were another group that could benefit from a program like this.

“We’re reducing the risk to the community; we’re improving these people’s lives; we’re getting them back on track to being productive members of society — which they’ve shown that they have the ability to do — and we’re doing it at a lower cost to the taxpayer,” Vanover said. “So it’s kind of a win-win.”

To qualify for the program, accused first responders would first have to show their criminal activity was a result of some mental condition — like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Then, the District Attorney’s Office would have to sign off on that first responder as an appropriate candidate for the program.

Finally, the first responder would have to go before a judge and plead guilty to the charges filed against them. If they successfully complete the treatment program, the judge will later dismiss their case. But if they fail, they will be sentenced for their crimes.

This is not a gimme program,” said Vanover. “It’s very intensive. It’s closely monitored. It’s immediate sanctions. And it requires somebody to take responsibility for their actions.”

Wilson stresses that not all cases will qualify for the program — and says her office will “absolutely” prosecute first responders to the fullest extent of the law when appropriate.

“We’re not talking about high level, serious offenses,” said Wilson. “We’ve all watched current events and know of cases that are going on with first responders. That’s really not the population we’re talking about. We’re talking about cases that are related to the trauma that they receive from day in and day out working.”

Tarrant County Commissioners are slated to vote on the program during their meeting Tuesday at 10 a.m. If approved, it would be the first such program in the state.