Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman has terminated a decades-long contract with a nonprofit providing diversion programs to first-time offenders in favor of a cheaper, for-profit company whose leadership staff has no formal training.

The move likely will force Operation de Novo to shut down permanently, after 46 years of offering programs for offenders to complete to avoid a criminal charge or get it dismissed.

"I'm frustrated and disappointed in the decision," said Operation de Novo Executive Director Niki Leicht. "I'm worried that clients won't get the services they need to be successful."

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 the officials say it's closer to $730,000. A bid from the incoming program, Diversion Solutions, came in at $200,000.

But there's a stark difference in credentials carried by the outgoing and incoming agencies.

The staff and leadership of Operation de Novo is composed of college educated professionals, some with master's degrees and all trained in behavioral sciences, Leicht said.

That's not the case for Diversion Solutions.

"We are not big on titles and having degrees," said Diversion Solutions CEO Scott Adkisson. "We are big on employees who have the time to help someone."

Adkisson said he comes from the school of "hard knocks," and has a diploma but no college degree. He said his only formal training was two one-week classes in leadership at the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids, Minn. Adkisson's director of operations — his wife, Dawn Conroy-Adkisson — has a college degree in music therapy with a background teaching music in public schools and serving as music minister for a church in Red Wing.

If his company's contract — which has yet to be signed — is approved by the Hennepin County Board, he would oversee a diversion program for hundreds of first-time nonviolent drug and property offenders referred to him by the county attorney's office. If the offender is successful, the charges could be dropped.

Chuck Laszewski, a spokesman for the Hennepin County attorney's office, said the office knows about Adkisson's lack of formal training.

"We're also aware that he has an excellent track record with diversion programs he has run and we are confident we will have a great outcome while saving taxpayers a half-million dollars a year," he said. Freeman declined to be interviewed.

Several programs

Adkisson said he has trained his wife, who in turn will train the seven advisers who will have the responsibility for meeting once a month with the county's first-time offenders in 30-minute sessions.

Adkisson said he will also train the two intake workers he plans to hire to work with prosecutors in the court system.

Spurgeon Kennedy, one of the nation's top experts on diversion programs, questioned whether Diversion Solutions was an appropriate agency to do the job.

"I appreciate the school of hard knocks, but I don't think it qualifies you to be a diversion director," said Kennedy, who lives in Maryland. "It certainly doesn't qualify you to help other people get their lives together," he said.

Diversion Solutions has gained a major foothold in Minnesota, with contracts to run driver's license reinstatement programs in more than 100 Minnesota cities and 15 counties. It has also done some variations of diversion programs in 15 cities, including Minneapolis, and nine counties.

"From my perspective, they've done a very good job," said Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, who said Diversion Solutions has operated its diversion program since 2014. Last year, they referred 63 people through its adult felony property crimes diversion program.

The Hennepin County felony program would be its largest program in Minnesota.

Cost and quality

A 2008 federal report repeatedly cited Operation de Novo as a national model for diversion programs. Leicht has an extensive career in criminal justice programs and pretrial services, and has worked as a chemical health specialist and in pretrial services for years before taking over Operation de Novo in 2014. It currently employs 10 people.

In 2015, Operation de Novo got referrals for 612 cases. Of them, 491 were successful, meaning the clients completed all the programs and charges were dismissed.

David Brown, chief deputy county attorney, last week defended the decision to select Diversion Solutions. Five years ago, Brown noted, the county attorney's office moved its juvenile diversion program from Operation de Novo to another nonprofit agency after a bidding process.

Hennepin County District Judge Pam Alexander, who interned at Operation de Novo in the 1970s, said she hopes the level of services remains consistent.

"I think de Novo was an expensive program, but I think it served people well," she said. "I don't understand the decision. ... I would want to be reassured that they are getting the service level they got in the past and are not going to be excluded because they can't afford it. De Novo has been a great program; they served their clients well."

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224