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D.A. Tries to Divert Young|& Mentally Ill From Prison

DALLAS (CN) - Acknowledging her recent struggles with depression, Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk on Monday described new programs to divert first-time nonviolent defendants who are young or mentally ill away from prison.

Speaking at a news conference at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, Hawk said the new Reformative Justice Unit programs will begin on Jan. 1 with 50 participants. Defendants with a diagnosed mental illness will stay up to 18 months in a Stabilization Engagement Transition program to help them with housing, medical treatment and employment before their case is dismissed.

Defendants younger than 25 will be sent to state District Judge Brandon Birmingham's special court, where they will spend up to 12 months in an Achieve Inspire Motivate program to help them complete high school and life skills classes before their case is dismissed.

Hawk said the programs are unique because they do not require probation and a later expungement of the case - they allow defendants to avoid probation and any mention of a crime on their record.

"For too long, prosecution rates have been used to measure the effectiveness of our office," Hawk said. "That needs to change."

Hawk called the new programs "the future of criminal justice." She said 30 percent of Dallas County jail inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and that the program's first participants will be selected "within hours" of being booked into jail.

"Mass incarceration has not made us safer," Hawk said. "Sending more people to prison has weakened our most at-risk communities by promoting poverty, racial disparity, dividing families and creating long-term housing and employment issues for so many first-time, nonviolent offenders. It is not just prosecuting when there already is a felony or a new felony case filed. This goes to the very beginning of what can we do to prevent it from happening in the future."

Hawk has weathered months of criticism after disappearing this summer for psychiatric treatment. She acknowledged that may have played a role in her initiative.

"When you ask me if it's something to do personally ... probably subconsciously, at some level, it was," she said. "I mean, that is the best way I can answer that."

Citing her years on the bench as a state district judge before she was elected district attorney last year, Hawk said she has seen diversion programs work.

"I have had a front-row seat to these programs, and my experience as a judge is a foundation for this new unit," she said.

Follow @davejourno
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