65% of all felony drug cases from Orange, Osceola state attorney’s office enrolled in drug diversion program over past year

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — 9 Investigates is digging into the results from a plan to allow people who are caught with drugs, including fentanyl and heroin, a way to stay out of jail or prison and even get charges dropped.

Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala launched the Level 2 Drug Diversion program a year ago, with the goal of reducing her office’s caseload and the number of people incarcerated for non-trafficking drug crimes. Ayala says the idea worked, allowing her staff to focus on major crimes instead of drug possession prosecutions.

“Our failed policies of the past have done absolutely nothing to reduce drug offenses to reduce crime,” Ayala said.

READ: Local attorney says 2 Orlando police officers should be on state attorney’s Brady List

Instead of prosecuting every drug possession referred to her office, Ayala said about 500 cases in the last year have been sent to diversion, which includes an online course, community service and sometimes rehabilitation in exchange for the charges being dropped.

“Part of the issue with the ‘war on drugs’ is that we’re not recognizing there is a real issue. There are real lives, and we cannot continue to put them in a file and forget that something happened before, and something will happen after,” Ayala said.

WATCH: Orange-Osceola state attorney debate on Channel 9

It’s meant a significant reduction in caseloads for her staff. The 500 or so cases sent to diversion represents 65% of all felony drug cases in Orange and Osceola counties over the last year and 35% of the entire felony caseload. It also means people were kept out of a system that research shows disproportionately impacts minority communities.

Those arrests can create a domino effect, leading to difficulties finding jobs and housing.

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“It’s not just the domino effect,” Ayala said. “It significantly contributes to mass incarceration, which is impacting poor, Black and Brown communities, not just here, but across the state and across the country,” Ayala said.

According to the research group Prison Policy Initiative, 1 in 5 of the 2.3 million people incarcerated across the country are in jail or prison because of drugs, and the overwhelming majority were not dealers but simply in possession.

“It has been nothing but fear mongering and the emotional reaction that has failed our criminal justice system, and ends up harming communities across this country,” Ayala said.

Ayala said her team wants to begin offering diversion as an option during a defendant’s initial appearance before a judge. She hopes whoever replaces her in the upcoming election will continue this program since she is not seeking a second term.

READ: Meet the 5 Democrats running for Orange County Sheriff

Watch Channel 9′s debate between the Democratic and independent candidates vying to replace her:

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.