The debate over the future of adult diversion programs for first-time felony criminal offenders in Hennepin County heated up on Friday.
Three members of the Hennepin County Board backed a decision by head prosecutor Mike Freeman to cut ties with Operation de Novo, a nonprofit that since 1971 has been providing programs for offenders to complete to avoid a criminal charge or get it dismissed.
But several public officials expressed serious concerns or outright opposition to Freeman's decision.
Freeman's office said the move was partly a cost-cutting measure. De Novo officials say their services this year will run the county $600,000 — though county officials say it's closer to $730,000. A bid from the incoming program, Diversion Solutions, came in at $200,000.
While Operation de Novo leadership staff have backgrounds in behavioral sciences and training in diversion work, Diversion Solutions' managers have no training in diversion, although they will be training their staff to counsel offenders. Scott Adkisson, the CEO and chief trainer, has only a high school diploma, saying this week that "we are not big on titles and having degrees."
Diversion Solutions operates programs in Dakota and St. Louis counties, along with other jurisdictions. While it won the bid, the contract is not finalized and needs approval from the County Board.
County Commissioner Mike Opat said Friday he had "no problem" with Freeman's decision to hire Diversion Solutions.
"I don't think it is rocket science to run a good diversion program," he said. "We will certainly look at [Diversion Solutions'] performance, but I'm not concerned."
William Ward, who heads the state public defender's office and held the same role in Hennepin County from 2009 to 2014, said it's much more complicated than that.
"I think the world of Commissioner Opat, but the reality is that diversion is rocket science," he said. "We are talking about dealing with underlying issues of clients and finding the appropriate resources."
He said Operation de Novo has "a proven track record of helping our clients."
County Commissioner Debbie Goettel said in an e-mail that she has "full faith" in Freeman's decision.
"This was a business decision by that office. … We are accountable to the taxpayers and to the clients we serve," she wrote. "It is a balance of being good financial stewards and providing the best possible outcomes."
Commissioner Jeff Johnson said he was inclined to support Freeman's decision, although he has not seen the results of Diversion Solutions' work.
"They are obviously a fraction of the costs," he said. "If they can compete with respect to outcomes, I think it's good if we give them a try."
Four other commissioners either declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests.
Commissioners Linda Higgins and Peter McLaughlin will meet separately Tuesday with representatives of Operation de Novo's board, said Operation de Novo board member T. Williams.
"I think the county attorney's office is selling clients short," said Williams. "In some ways they are setting [clients] up to fail because they are not providing services that can maximize their opportunity for success."
Hennepin District Judge Pamela Alexander said if she were on the County Board, she would vote "no" on the contract for Diversion Solutions.
"I think de Novo is known as one of the premier diversion agencies around the country," she said. "We need trained professionals to meet clients where they are and be able to get them to places where they need to be so we don't get them back in court over and over again because their needs haven't been met," she said.
Hennepin District Judge Kevin Burke, former chief judge, said he's troubled that the required qualifications for those who run diversion programs are "radically different" than those in the probation department where at least a bachelor's degree is required.
"But I am not to the point of saying you shouldn't end up giving people who don't have academic degrees no chance to be part of the system," Burke said. Hennepin County probation officers must have bachelor's and master's degrees.