Diversion: A Landmark Bill

grygielny Diversion, IL

On May 31, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation that will assist police in diverting individuals, including low level drug users and the mentally ill, into treatment programs rather than jails or prison. The bill is the first of its kind in the nation.

Senate Bill 3023 formalizes a process called “diversion” which first gained national attention three years ago. The Police Chief of Gloucester, Massachusetts posted on Facebook that if drug users came directly to his office he not would arrest them but would steer them to treatment. The message went viral.

Illinois’ legislation should serve as a roadmap for police and treatment providers. It authorizes them to establish diversion programs. It offers immunity from civil liability for participants and establishes eligibility for funding. It also requires the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority to gather program data and measure performance.

Since then, Jac Charlier, National Director for Justice Initiatives at Illinois Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC), has worked with police chiefs and social service providers to organize programs around the country based on this concept. Charlier helped to establish the PTAC Collaborative (Police, Treatment, and Community). This organization reports that over 500 out of 1,800 police departments in the U.S. are now practicing what he calls “deflection” in some form.

Clergy for a New Drug Policy has been working to publicize and advocate for diversion programs since their inception. Progressive activists in the Quad Cities with whom we met last week expressed strong interest in advocating for this measure. They felt that the cost savings of treatment compared to incarceration should be persuasive to community leaders.

The greatest obstacle to wider implementation is the lack of treatment facilities. In the May 24 issue of Chicago Reporter, Curtis Black wrote that “many existing programs… stabilize communities and prevent violence. But they are never brought to scale or funded sustainably. Instead we continue to pour money into arresting and imprisoning people.”

Nationally, drug and mental health treatment is available for only about ten percent of those who need it. In the Chicago Reporter, Jack Charlier noted that “No community in the United States has sufficient behavioral health services.” About 1,300 police forces do not yet include deflection in their array of services. SB 3023 is intended to encourage them to do so.

Reverend Alexander Sharp