The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office implemented its alternative sentencing-focused Deferred Prosecution Program in February 2011. The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority awarded a grant to the Loyola University Chicago to evaluate the program in 2013. The program became the model for the Offender Initiative Program, enacted by state law (730 ILCS 5/5-6-3.3) in 2013 to promote public safety, conserve resources, and reduce recidivism.
The Deferred Prosecution Program offers certain first-time, non-violent felony offenders a chance to avoid a conviction upon successful completion of a 12-month program. Defendants are screened by Assistant State’s Attorneys based on charge and criminal background. Defendants charged with retail theft, burglary, theft, drug possession, credit card and ID fraud, and fraud are eligible for the program. If both the victim and the defendant agree to program participation, the case is assigned to a pre-trial services officer that monitors the participant’s progress over the next nine to 12 months. A number of conditions may be imposed, including payment of restitution, enrollment and attendance in GED programs, community service, and agreement to not violate any laws or possess a firearm or deadly weapon. Upon successful completion of the program, the defendant’s felony change is dismissed and participants are given guidance on arrest record expungement.
The program aims to reduce the number of cases flowing into felony courtrooms while offering a second chance to first-time felony offenders. Administrative data provided by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office on program implementation between February 2011 and May 2013 showed an average of 35 individuals entering the program each month. Defendants facing charges of retail theft, burglary, and theft accounted for more than half of all program admissions.
Table 1. Charges against Deferred Prosecution Program participants
|Possession of a Stolen Motor Vehicle||2.4|
|ID Theft/Unlawful use of Credit Card/Fictitious ID||5.0|
|Criminal Damage to Government Property||3.5|
|Counterfeit Trademark/Deceptive Practice||1.2|
|Unlawful use of Recording Device||1.4|
The evaluation showed a program success rate of almost 70 percent. Of the sample studied, 68.6 percent of participants saw their cases dismissed, indicating successful program completion, while 31.4 percent were terminated from the program. Variation was seen in the success rate across offense types. Participants charged with possession of a stolen vehicle had the highest failure rate, with 57 percent ultimately terminated from the program. Those charged with forgery had the lowest failure rate at 16 percent.
Evaluators also compared program participant outcomes to outcomes of individuals that received traditional felony court adjudication. Re-arrest rates for the two groups were similar, with about 31.4 percent of participants and 33.5 percent of non-participants being re-arrested within 18 months. Several factors traditionally found to be associated with recidivism were associated with re-arrest among both groups. Young males with more prior criminal involvement were at increased likelihood for re-arrest within 18 months.
The study indicated that certain groups were less likely to reoffend. Women in the program were less likely to be re-arrested than women in the comparison group, with 22 percent and 28 percent, respectively, re-arrested within 18 months. The Deferred Prosecution Program had a significant positive effect on re-arrest rates of women charged with theft. The program reduced their likelihood of re-arrest by about 76 percent.
Implications for policy and practice
Strong collaboration and buy-in from the program stakeholders was instrumental to successful program operation and the program’s low cost. Stakeholders identified existing staff and resources within the CCSAO to integrate the program into existing operational structures. Taking the time to develop these collaborations within the CCSAO, Pre-Trial Services and the Office of the Chief Judge is an important strategy for an effective program. Additionally, the office’s Director of Treatment Resources brought a number of strengths to the program, including a coordinative role that facilitated program development and structure.
Evaluators recommended increased engagement of the Cook County Public Defender’s Office and a more detailed overview of program requirements provided to potential participants. Increased assistance to participants on expungement also was recommended, as many participants had not completed the process during the study period.
Although the evaluation was unable to find a significant effect on re-arrest rates, other than for certain types of defendants, the beneficial impact of the program’s key outcomes— absence of a criminal felony conviction for those completing the program and fewer individuals progressing through a costly criminal justice process—cannot be overstated. Significant savings can be achieved by rerouting these first-time offenders out of felony courtrooms without additional negative impact on public safety. In addition to savings realized through the criminal justice system, eliminating the felony conviction will remove a significant obstacle in obtaining employment. Employers reveal a great reluctance to hire a person with a felony conviction. 1 A study found that more than 60 percent of employers were unwilling to hire an applicant with a criminal record.2 Felony convictions can significantly hinder an individual’s ability to find employment, stable housing, and advanced education. The program significantly reduces the future collateral consequences of a criminal conviction for first-time, non-violent felony offenders, and did so within an already established structure that kept costs low.
For those jurisdictions interested in implementing or improving a deferred prosecution program, the Loyola report cites examples of effective components that contributed to successful operation and the necessary data elements that a program should collect to measure performance.