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For Some Theft Cases, Columbus Attorney Wants City Services Instead Of Jail

City Atty. Zach Klein and Columbus Councilmember Shayla Favor.
Nick Evans
/
WOSU
City Atty. Zach Klein and Columbus Councilmember Shayla Favor.

The Columbus City Attorney is rolling out a pilot program meant to reduce theft recidivism.  

The initiative works with repeat offenders who have stolen at big box stores like Kroger or Best Buy. Instead of simply punishing defendants, City Attorney Zach Klein says they’ll try to get at the root cause of the crime, and come up with a plan to address it.

“The goal here is not necessarily what I think we’ve seen traditionally in the criminal justice system, which is just solely focused on convictions,” Klein says. “Only if we treat the underlying reasons why someone commits a crime will be truly make our community safer.”

The program uses a 36-question screening survey to assess what’s motivating a defendant’s behavior. Case workers will then develop a plan tailored to their needs, whether it be food, employment, housing or health services.

“Think about it,” Klein says. “If you’re driven by food insecurity or you’re driven by a drug addiction issue and we don’t treat the underlying reason of lack of food or abusing a drug, if we don’t treat that underlying reason, then of course that person will continue to steal to provide food for their family.”

For some, the diversion program might include visiting the local food pantry or enrolling in drug treatment.

Much of the effort will be funded through Ohio’s Medicaid expansion, but Columbus City Council member Shayla Favor explains the city is putting up $25,000 to assist those who don’t qualify for the federal program.

As a former prosecutor, Favor says she encountered many defendants who felt driven to crime as a matter of survival.

“Whether it was to ensure a roof over their family’s head, or to secure food on the table,” Favor explains, “without access to resources, many felt as though they were backed into a corner, and made decisions that run contrary to their personal and moral code of action.”

The diversion pilot is restricted to theft charges at larger retailers, and Klein explains they’re sticking to people who have stolen before but have fewer than 10 theft convictions on their record. A different, well-established program is in place for first-time offenders.

If participants successfully complete the six-month program, the City Attorney’s Office will dismiss their charges. So far, Klein’s office has identified 75 people who are eligible; 14 are receiving services, and the other 61 are going through the screening process.