Attorneys, judge question use of for-profit company in Buncombe County court system
BUNCOMBE COUNTY, N.C. -- A for-profit company called Corrective Solutions, based in California, is helping Buncombe County's District Attorney, Todd Williams, handle hundreds of petty crime cases.
The program is meant to ease the court's caseload and give first-time misdemeanor offenders the opportunity to get their charge dismissed without entering a guilty plea in court. But some Asheville attorneys and a superior court judge feel the program has no place in the Buncombe County judicial system.
News 13 spoke to four people enrolled in the program. While two didn't want their identities revealed, all four said they felt the program was reasonably priced and worth doing to get a dismissal of their first-time misdemeanor charge.
Twenty-one-year-old Erica Kalogerakis has her whole life ahead of her. But last June, the newlywed lost her job and, with a girlfriend, made a bad mistake.
"I was struggling because of the fact I only had one income," Kalogerakis said. "You know, there were things I wanted. We just did it."
What she did was steal a pair of shorts and a t-shirt from Target off Tunnel Road near the Asheville Mall.
"We did shoplift, and we did deserve to be punished," she admitted.
Seventeen-year-old Krissean Daugherty admits he was hanging with the wrong crowd.
"I was at the mall, and I kind of got into a fight, and the cops caught me," Daugherty said. "I got charged with disorderly conduct."
Both are first time offenders. Because of that, Kalogerakis' and Daugherty's petty crimes qualified them to by-pass court and hiring an attorney. Instead, they paid to enter a diversion program run by Corrective Solutions, which is administering the program for the DA.
"The program is more affordable than anything we've had in the past," said Todd Williams, Buncombe County's District Attorney, who hired Corrective Solutions last April. "It gives offenders a new option other than, 'Do you want a trial or not, do you want to plead guilty or not.'"
According to company materials obtained my News 13, people charged with a list of 25 various misdemeanor charges can qualify to pay for the program that includes a behavioral class and drug testing if the charge is related to drugs.
The list of qualifying charges includes misdemeanors like possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, trespassing ,and shoplifting that Kalogerakis got charged with.
"You know, the program served it's purpose," Kalogerakis said. "It did what it's supposed to do and that's to deter you from doing it ever again."
Kalogerakis paid $300 for the Corrective Solutions program and performed 30 hours of community service. She felt the price was reasonable and that people should have no problem paying for it.
Krissean Daugherty's program to get his disorderly conduct charge dismissed costs him $295. But the company lets him and all those enrolled pay in monthly installments of $40.
"If you've got the money, you can get your charges dismissed," Steve Lyndsay, a defense attorney in Asheville, said. Lyndsay feels a for-profit company has no business handling casework for District Attorney Williams.
"What happens to poor people who can't afford to be in the system to begin with," Lyndsay questioned.
"A for-profit company is a for-profit company," District Court Judge Calvin Hill said. "Which means they are in it to make money."
Hill is also concerned.
"I know, personally, that I have had at least two people who came in front of me and said, 'I was put out of the program because I could not afford it,'" he said.
Hill is also concerned that there isn't a judge overseeing the program. He said it's the only program in the Buncombe County court system that has no judicial oversight.
"How would they supervise it if they're in California? They've got one person here that processes people incoming in our courts," he said.
That somebody is Jasmine Middleton, who is the administrator paid by Corrective Solutions. She has an office in the Buncombe County courthouse.
"I already know the people we're going to offer the program to," Middleton said.
Middleton reviews hundreds of cases, culling from the monthly docket offenders who qualify. In a room, adjacent to the administrative court, Middleton explains the Corrective Solutions option to candidates who are interested. Middleton gave an example of how the program works.
"If you have a trespassing charge, you need to complete eight hours of community service, and it would be over three months, and it would cost around $255," she explained.
While Judge Hill and Attorney Lindsay say they are aware of concerns about the program raised to DA Todd Williams, Williams said his office has not had a single official complaint with an individual in the program identified with a specific problem.
"We really have not received a volume of complaints that would indicate the program is under suspicion or failure," Williams said.
But through a Freedom of Information request, News 13 obtained numerous emails over the past year between defense attorneys and the district attorney's office, expressing concerns or issues they feel need to be addressed.
Just months after Corrective Solutions began operating in Buncombe County in 2015, Meghann Burke wrote to the DA's office in an email saying, "As the program has launched, many of us who wanted to give your office the opportunity to get it off the ground by taking a wait and see approach have moved from ambivalent to very skeptical that it (a) is ethical and (b) serves our clients."
One big concern expressed by some defense attorneys is the program's indigent fund that's run by Corrective Solutions.
"So, the company who is receiving the profit from running this program decides who is entitled to get financial assistance," Lyndsay said. "The people who are in a position to make a profit, make more profit if they don't give their money away."
"The diversion program would be happy to disperse the indigent fund to another entity which would manage the fund if there's a perceived conflict of interest," DA Williams said.
Corrective Solutions told News 13 that 270 people have completed the program. Thomas Johnsson with Corrective Solutions told News 13 three people the company deemed indigent were covered for their programs in March and April of this year. He said the fund, which has $2,700 in it, paid out $700 for those three individuals.
"I'm happy to continue to evaluate if people are actually getting access to the fund because it really is important to me that this program work the way we designed it to work," DA Williams said.
Lyndsay also questions why Williams hired Corrective Solutions at all. Buncombe and Beaufort County, a rural county on North Carolina's coast, are the only two counties in the state using it.
"This is a program that the District Attorney's office could run itself," Lyndsay said. "It doesn't need to have to farm this out. It's farming it out because of budget issues."
An email obtained by News 13 said the DA's office "did not have the manpower required to take over the deferred program" and goes on to discuss other problems with caseload for the office.
"When I came in, the office had lost four positions. But basically, we're here to do the right thing and to do justice, and that's why we're doing the program," Williams said.
Corrective Solutions has, in part, filled that gap.
"A lot of high-quality services are provided by people who are in business for profit," DA Williams said.
But some question what's the real expense.
"It goes to the integrity of our courts," Judge Hill said. "We have a program running that is not affordable to everybody. Then I can see how citizens would question the integrity of our courts."
Judge Hill said the nuisance court he supervises monthly essentially does the same thing Corrective Solutions is doing now, and sometimes at a much lower cost. He said the caseload for nuisance court has dropped dramatically now that Corrective Solutions is in place and cases are being diverted there.
Johnsson with Corrective Solutions would not say how much money the company has taken in in fees since it began operating in Buncombe County last April.
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