Zahnd’s effort applies in first-time nonviolent cases
o some, Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd might not seem like someone interested in offering criminals a second chance. After all, one local news outlet has said Zahnd’s office has brandished a protect-the-citizens-first attitude that local lawbreakers have grown to fear.
But things aren’t as simple as they seem. At Zahnd’s urging and with his ongoing support, Platte County is the only jurisdiction in the Kansas City, Missouri metro to have implemented four of the most-recognized treatment courts: drug, DWI, mental health, and veterans courts. And he’s now starting a program for other first-time, nonviolent offenders to address criminal behavior without even charging a crime.
“I’ve always believed dangerous people deserve long prison sentences to preserve public safety and protect law-abiding citizens,” Zahnd said. “But every prosecutor’s office deals with far more people who have made mistakes that can be corrected without serving time. I now think there is a category of people we may not even have to charge in order to achieve justice.”
Zahnd’s office has just established the Platte CARES program, which offers first-time, nonviolent misdemeanor or felony offenders the opportunity to avoid a criminal record if they admit their wrongdoing, perform community service, remain crime- and drug-free, and work or continue their education.
Platte CARES stands for Platte Community Alternative with Restorative and Educational Services.
“The goals of Platte CARES are to reduce court caseloads, decrease incarceration, and lower recidivism by intervening with lower-risk offenders, hopefully diverting most participants from future involvement with the criminal justice system for the rest of their lives,” said Zahnd. “And because a misdemeanor or felony record can have adverse consequences for a lifetime, Platte CARES is designed to achieve these goals while participants avoid their first misdemeanor or felony criminal conviction.”
After admitting their guilt and with consultation of crime victims, Platte CARES participants avoid charges or convictions by agreeing to complete personalized assignments based on their crimes and backgrounds. Over a period of six months to two years, every participant will perform community service and agree not to commit additional crimes.
Participants will be screened for drug and alcohol problems and will be assigned treatment and drug or alcohol testing where needed. They will also be expected to work at a job or continue their education. Participants may complete individual assignments based on the nature of their crimes and their rehabilitative needs.
If a participant victimized another person, the participant will be required to make restitution and, when appropriate, engage in a restorative justice program where the participant will meet with and apologize to the victim. Participants who fail to complete their assignments will be expelled from the program, and Zahnd’s office will file the criminal charges originally submitted.
Platte CARES will be offered at a fixed cost of $300 for participants, with all fees waived for participants unable to afford the program. The program does not accept participants who are eligible for Platte County’s treatment court programs.
The program is partially funded through August with a Justice Reinvestment Initiative grant from the Missouri Department of Corrections, and Zahnd says he will continue to look for other grant funding to maintain the program.
Zahnd is also grateful to Platte County voters for passing a law enforcement tax in 2020. With the approval of the Platte County Commission, revenue from that tax helped fund the salary of the program’s coordinator in Zahnd’s office.
Zahnd has established a Community Advisory Board to help guide Platte CARES. Nine board members will serve rotating three-year terms. The board is currently comprised of:
Reverend Joseph I. Cisetti, pastor, St. Therese Catholic Church.
Adele Ducharme, president and chief executive officer, St. Luke’s North Hospital.
Ivan Foley, owner and publisher, Platte County Landmark.
Chad Hanson, director of operations, Sealink International, Inc.
Mark Owen, Platte County Sheriff
Chris Patterson, attorney at Patterson Law Office LLC.
Tom Petrizzo, chief executive officer, Tri-County Mental Health Services, Inc.
Greg Plumb, professor of criminal justice, Park University.
Suzanne Zimmerman, founder and director, The Farmer’s House.
In addition to Zahnd, Platte CARES is led by assistant prosecuting attorneys Amy Ashelford and Brice Barnard, and program coordinator Eric Allen, a former Missouri Probation and Parole Officer.
“There’s a common misperception that many prosecutors, including me, are only interested in locking people up for as long as possible,” Zahnd said. “I’d really rather there be no serious crimes to prosecute because people dealt with problems like drug or alcohol abuse, mental health issues, lack of education, and joblessness before they ever hurt someone else. I hope Platte CARES will give as many people as possible the opportunity to lead healthy, productive, and law-abiding lives.”