Delaware finds success in program helping defendants awaiting trial

 Gov. Markell talks at Wilmington's Rick VanStory Resource Center about the state's efforts to improve outcomes for defendants during the pre-trial period. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

Gov. Markell talks at Wilmington's Rick VanStory Resource Center about the state's efforts to improve outcomes for defendants during the pre-trial period. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

A new program designed to help defendants awaiting trial have better outcomes for their future is having success in Delaware.

Yvette Lomax was facing attempted robbery, burglary and assault charges when she missed her court date.

As a result of not showing up, the Delaware resident was sent to jail with bail set at $25,000. Upon making the payment, Lomax was put on supervision until her new court date.

This wasn’t the first time she went through the process—but this time was different.

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Instead of struggling to make a court appearance because of her personal struggles, or because she didn’t have the funds or the transportation to get her there, she had help along the way.

Lomax was one of 53 defendants participating in a federally funded pilot program that provides community-based services to low-risk individuals awaiting trial in Delaware. The $250,000 program serves as an alternative to incarceration and traditional pre-trial supervision.

Lomax was directed to Alcoholics Anonymous and anger management, and had a case worker to encourage her and make sure she made court dates.

“Miguel was always calling me on the phone that at one point I thought I was his only client,” she said. “He always kept up with me, ‘Did I have a way there? Was everything good at home?’”

Delaware’s Department of Correction contracted with the Rick VanStory Resources Center to run the program. The RVRC provides case workers who assess clients to best connect them to treatment programs and other social services. Those case workers also ensure they appear for court as required, and monitor their compliance with other conditions of their release.

On Thursday, Gov. Jack Markell, DOC officials and non-profit services providers spoke at the center in Wilmington to discuss the success of the program, which began in January.

“We can look at those folks as assets to our community or we can look at them as liabilities to our community,” said Markell, D-Delaware, as he addressed staff and clients at the center.

“If you’re given the opportunity to take the reins yourself you can be assets rather than liabilities.”

In addition to providing mental health, substance abuse treatment, job training services and the like, the case managers have a strong understanding of their clients because they too are individuals who have experienced jail, mental health or substance abuse struggles in the past.

“It helps them get their needs met more so than saying, ‘This is what you need to do, go do it.’ We’re able to be more involved, which is the biggest difference from what traditional DOC officers can do,” said Tony House, program director of pre-trial services and re-entry services.

The DOC says the program frees up the probation officers in its pre-trial services unit to help protect the community by focusing on the higher risk defendants who have posted bail.

Over the past seven years, the number of defendants ordered to pre-trial supervision has nearly tripled statewide, according to the DOC.

In addition, 23 percent of men and 40 percent of women who are incarcerated are pre-trial detainees.

“If we can engage them in those services and see the value in it, they can stay in the community and hopefully have better outcomes,” said DOC Commissioner Robert Coupe.

He said when someone is in detention they have limited resources as far as treatment. While there are mental health services, it is difficult to order incarcerated individuals into a substance abuse treatment program.

“It creates this challenge for us on the inside, whereas if we can connect them in the community to those services it’s better for them, the community and our prisoners, because they’re able to get involved in those services,” he said.

Criminal justice experts say remaining in the community enhances a defendants’ chance of success in the long term. During this period, they are more likely to appear for court, maintain employment and receive any kind of social service they need.

The DOC says the program has been successful—89 percent of defendants enrolled in the program showed up for their court hearing.

“This project specifically focuses on the pretrial area, but it has larger implications for the larger issues we face with mass incarceration,” said Katherine Parker West of the Delaware Center for Justice.

“By focusing on pretrial ‘detentioners’ we have the ability to impact decisions that are made that affect recidivism rates during that pretrial period and affect recidivism rates within the next two years.”

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