By Elena Schwartz
Melissa Braham, 27, had no adult criminal history when she was apprehended by police in Kansas last fall while moving from Colorado to Missouri. After searching her car, officers charged Braham and her boyfriend with misdemeanor marijuana and paraphernalia possession.
Under state law, she was entitled to receive notice that she could apply for a diversion program to avoid criminal charges. Instead, she was jailed for a month, during which time she lost her job and had her children taken from her and placed in foster care.
“My kids came to see me in jail, and it was really hard to see my baby crying,” Braham said in a video produced by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Kansas. “They’re still in foster care and I’m still trying to get them back.”
“All of this big heartache really could have been avoided if I had known about diversion.”
Braham is one of thousands of Kansas defendants who could have benefitted from diversion programs had they been given the opportunity. According to figures collected by the ACLU of Kansas, elected prosecutors in the state use diversion in only about five percent of felony cases—about half the rate diversion is used nationally.
The ACLU brought a lawsuit against a county prosecutor in Kansas in June for failing to disclose diversion opportunities to defendants in accordance with state law.
“These programs are essential to establish a rehabilitative rather than punitive criminal justice system,” said Somil Trivedi, a National ACLU attorney who is partnering with the ACLU of Kansas in the lawsuit, in a press release on June 8.