“Diversion” refers to pathways for offenders that replace prosecution within the criminal justice system. These alternatives can be pursued at any stage of the process: pre-booking, post-charge, or post-conviction.
Diversion typically entails referral to a treatment or care program. If an individual has an arrest, charge, or conviction has been placed on his or her record, it can be removed upon successful completion of the program.
Diversion programs replace punishment with treatment; they can redeem lives. They relieve the burdens on family members of those who would otherwise be incarcerated and dramatically reduce criminal justice costs. Nearly one-half of all people in state prisons have abused drugs, but only 10 percent receive treatment while incarcerated. Scholars at RTI International and Temple University have estimated savings of nearly $13 billion if 40% of eligible people in state prisons were diverted to treatment.
Three examples of pre-booking diversion currently are nationally prominent. Drug treatment is an essential part of all three because low-level offenders are so frequently drug users.
Two of the models focus primarily on recidivists who have been shuttled between jail and the streets for non-violent, low-level crimes. The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program in Seattle was the first such program when it was initiated in 2011. This four-year pilot program permits police to refer offenders directly to housing, treatment, and other services.
Key officials, including the city and county prosecutors, the mayor, the county executive, county sheriff, the Public Defender Association, and community representatives work together under a memorandum of understanding. Police support the program, and over just a three-year period there has been a clear policy shift in Seattle-King County from a paradigm of punishment to one centered on health. Drug arrests and local jail populations have declined.
In 2013, Santa Fe adopted its own version of LEAD to break the cycle of drug addiction and arrest. It focuses on opioid misuse, dependence, and overdose, as well as property crime. A RAND study found that the 100 top property and crime offenders in Santa Fe had been arrested a total of 590 times at an average cost of $42,000 for apprehension, court time, jail time, and post-release supervision. The program is overseen by a 30-member task force of law enforcement, public health and treatment managers, and community organizations.
Three years ago, the prosecutor in Chittenden County, Vermont started diverting individuals who were charged with theft, drug possession, or writing bad checks. Unlike Seattle and Santa Fe, this program engages first-time as well as chronic offenders. It has been so successful that the model is being proposed at the state level to address heroin-related crime that is placing huge burdens on Vermont’s courts and jails.
Diversion In the News
Instead of More Policing, a Model to Provide More Services
Chicago Reporter – May 24, 2018
One Year Later: Gloucester’s Opioid Program Inspires Policy Reform
Nonprofit Quarterly – June 3, 2016
Diversion benefits offenders as well as taxpayers
Athens Messenger – April 3, 2016
A Judge Embraces Diversion
The Atlantic – February 24, 2016
‘I don’t work it, I live it’: Program champions recovery for Auburn drug treatment court participants
Auburn Pub – January 14, 2016
In 2016, States Expected To Ramp Up Ideas To Solve Opiate Abuse
Central Coast Public Radio – January 1, 2016
Blog Posts on Diversion
How We Can Seize the MomentJune 13, 2020
A ‘Quiet Revolution’ Gains MomentumMarch 26, 2019
Diversion: A Landmark BillJune 13, 2018
Mental Illness, Poverty, and Addiction Are Not CrimesMarch 28, 2018