Diversion Programs Are a Smart, Sustainable Investment in Public Safety

Akhi Johnson Former Director, Reshaping Prosecution // Mustafa Ali-Smith Former Program Associate // Sam McCann Senior Writer
Apr 28, 2022

If jurisdictions want to improve public safety, then there are few better investments than diversion programs.

Diversion is a broad term referring to “exit ramps” that minimize people’s exposure to the criminal legal system by offering an alternative to arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. These programs take seriously the harm that jail, prosecution, and prison can do to public safety and instead aim to provide alternatives more likely to reduce crime.

Diversion programs can target the root problems that lead to criminalized behavior, like food and housing insecurity, joblessness, lack of educational resources, and unmet mental health needs. They also engage community, recognizing that restoration, healing, service provision, and relationship-building are more effective when done in the community, not behind bars. In doing so, the programs not only help improve long-term public safety and reduce crime but have also proven to be cost-efficient.

Diversion in action

People can participate in diversion programs at different decision points throughout the criminal legal system, and the programs vary in form, target populations, desired outcomes, and eligibility requirements. But ultimately, they all seek to reduce dependence on jails and prisons, instead offering tools better suited to meet people’s needs.

  • Pre-police encounter diversion programs recognize that many 911 calls do not require a law enforcement response. Instead of sending police to respond to certain 911 calls, these programs use civilian responders to address community problems. St. Petersburg, Florida, instituted the Community Assistance and Life Liaison (CALL) program in 2020 to do exactly that. In the program’s first year, it responded to 4,300 calls about issues like mental health, homelessness, substance use, and neighbor disputes. Many of those calls would have otherwise resulted in a response by police, who are ill-equipped to handle these situations.
  • Pre-arrest diversion programs give law enforcement discretion to connect people to support and services that address underlying needs, rather than arresting people accused of certain misdemeanors or nonviolent criminalized behaviors. These programs work best for people who need access to substance use or mental health treatment. In Tarrant County, Texas, local government officials used American Rescue Plan funds to create a diversion center run by My Health My Resources. The program is designed for people experiencing mental health crises so that they receive treatment rather than incarceration following an encounter with law enforcement.
  • Pre-charge diversion programs enable prosecutors to reduce incarceration by using their discretion to provide services rather than filing charges. In practice, that might look like Community Works West’s Restorative Community Conferences (RCC) in Alameda County, California, which provides young people arrested on misdemeanor or low-level felony charges a program designed to meet the needs of those harmed by their actions.
  • Pretrial diversion programs allow people charged with crimes to go through programs like problem-solving courts that have completion requirements and sometimes require them to enter a plea. In Georgia, the Show Us Your Guns! Differentiated Disposition Program, in partnership with Savannah Feed the Hungry and Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones through Vera’s Motion for Justice addresses young people who are facing gun possession charges. Instead of traumatic prison sentences, the initiative directs teenagers and young adults to programs that help them thrive.

A better alternative

The harsh—often torturous—conditions in jails and prisons do not lead to safe outcomes. They drain taxpayer money while denying opportunities to communities ravaged by decades of mass incarceration. For people charged with felony offenses, each additional year of incarceration can increase the likelihood of future contact with the criminal legal system by 4 to 7 percentage points, while reducing their chances of employment by 3.6 percentage points. Contrast that with the research emerging around diversion programs. A 2018 study in Harris County, Texas, found diversion programs decreased the probability of a person’s future conviction by 48 percent 10 years after participation and improved employment outcomes by 53 percent over the same period. During its first two years, Community Works West’s RCC program diverted 102 youth (45 percent Black and 33 percent Latinx) who would have otherwise been placed on probation. These participants were 44 percent less likely to be charged with another crime compared to youth who were on probation, and the program was also more cost-effective.

Nationally, youth diversion programs are on average 10 percent more effective in reducing future contact with the criminal legal system compared to conventional prosecution. In one study, young people going through standard prosecution were more than twice as likely to be rearrested than people who were diverted.

The numbers explain why jurisdictions committed to building sustainable public safety are turning to diversion programs as a key tool. Rather than pouring more resources into systems proven to fail, we need policymakers who will build programs tailored to local contexts. Diversion programs can reduce our misplaced reliance on incarceration by supporting solutions that foster safe and thriving communities.