CARe Court diversion program is back after Covid pandemic due to efforts of one determined Cochise County attorney
In 2015 the County Attorney’s office in Cochise County started a new diversion program in Justice of the Peace (JP) Precinct 5. The CARe Court provided an alternative to misdemeanor offenders experiencing continuous and persistent issues due to substance abuse, mental health challenges or issues related to being a military veteran. Most participants in this program have a medium or high risk of re-offending.
CARe is a diversion program so the criminal charges are dismissed if the individual graduates from the program, and graduation requires that the defendant participates in treatment and complies with the rules of the program, which usually takes six to nine months to successfully complete.
“The advantage of CARe Court to the defendants is that it provides the defendant with the opportunity to avoid a criminal conviction, which alone can be very harmful to a person’s employment opportunities, and a sentence of fines or jail time. The advantage to the community is that we treat the underlying problem rather than just imposing punishment. We also save the county money by reducing incarceration, both pretrial and post adjudication, and eliminating the need for mental competency hearings and restoration to competency treatment.” said Superior Court Judge for Division IV, Timothy Dickerson (then a Sierra Vista JP) as he described the program.
The program was well regarded and yielded positive results but when the Covid pandemic struck, the CARe Court was disbanded.
Kristina Guerrero has served Cochise County since 2013, currently as a Deputy County Attorney with the Felony Drug Unit and previously as JP5 Prosecutor. Kristina, determined to re-activate the CARe Court program even though she no longer worked as a prosecutor in JP5, decided to spearhead an effort to do just that, an endeavor that involved reassembling the Board, training a new JP5 Prosecutor on how to run the CARe Court, and selling the concept to a new Justice of the Peace and new defense attorneys. Some of the stakeholders had never dealt with a diversion program like the CARe Court and she faced skepticism, alongside the challenge of dealing with professionals already overburdened in their everyday jobs and with precious little time to spare.
Kristina, a full-time felony prosecutor and a mother of six, used her singular passion for making Cochise County a better community and her conviction about the unique benefits of this program to motivate herself and others to move through the steps needed to achieve her goal, one by one. The CARe Board came back together, with representation from Law Enforcement, Probation, Veterans’ Associations, Veterans’ help groups and agencies who address substance abuse and mental health issues.
Thanks to Kristina’s Herculean efforts, the Cochise County CARe Court has been newly active since September 2022 and stakeholders who were initially skeptical are now ardent fans. The results speak for themselves, and the revitalized program already has successful graduation stories:
- A defendant had multiple misdemeanors, was in and out of jail due to threatening behavior, had mental health issues and was medically noncompliant and had been banned from his home, becoming homeless He chose to enter CARe Court even with his issues of mental illness and homelessness and he graduated from the program within 4 months. He is now medically compliant, has not reoffended, is no longer homeless and has been reunited with his family.
- A highly decorated veteran was charged with a misdemeanor and was offered the CARe Court option and entered the program, choosing to seek necessary medical help and has been able to continue living with his family, and has not reoffended.
- A third defendant who chose to enter CARe Court and has completed anger management and is participating in counseling has not reoffended.
In June of 2023, Kristina Guerrero was recognized for her remarkable achievement at the annual conference of the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council (APAAC), which awarded her a new title: Arizona Specialty Court, Diversion, or Alternative to Prosecution Program Prosecutor of the Year. This is a new award category, and Kristina faced stiff competition from prosecutors statewide.
Kristina was accompanied to the ceremony by County Attorney Brian McIntyre, who sits on the Board of APAAC, along with every elected county attorney in Arizona and lead prosecutors for large municipalities such as the City of Phoenix and the City of Tucson, as well as the Arizona Attorney General.
Members of the public who want to learn more about the program can call the Misdemeanor Line: (520) 417-0895.