A Beginner’s Guide to Jail Diversion and Criminal Justice Programs

Jail diversion programs are criminal justice programs that keep offenders out of jail and in the community.

They have numerous benefits, such as:

  • Allowing offenders to be contributing members of society
  • Reducing recidivism
  • Reducing costs in criminal proceedings
  • Allowing offenders to have access to necessary treatment and resources
  • Reshaping the community’s view on criminal offenders

Creating a jail diversion program can be complex, and you may be unsure how to get started in your community. There are several vital steps that you must take along the way to ensure program success. Of course, these steps are cyclic and may be repeated as necessary, so your jail diversion program can grow and improve over the years.

Step One: Identify a Target Population

So, where do you start? Well, first, you need to identify your target population. This is the group of individuals that you intend your program to serve, i.e., which offenders you will allow in the program and which ones you will not.

Jail diversion programs can be used for several individuals whose cases all have unique features. Depending on what these individuals bring to the table, they can be permitted to enter a jail diversion program. There are two essential pieces to this; specific needs to address and program eligibility.

Specific Needs

Each jail diversion program is designed to serve a different population with different needs. For example, many states have jail diversion programs based on substance use disorders, mental health disorders, and military backgrounds. Each of these populations faces a different set of issues daily, and their programs are designed to meet these specific needs.

For example, substance use jail diversion programs will likely focus on drug and alcohol treatment and recovery meetings. Mental health jail diversion programs will probably have mental health counseling as the primary focus. Jail diversion programs for those with a military background will take advantage of resources available for veterans that other populations may not have access to.

Program Eligibility

The jail diversion program setup should also lay out a series of eligibility criteria. Unfortunately, these programs do not work for everyone, or some offenders may have committed too serious of a crime to participate in a program without compromising community safety.

For example, the Office of Justice Programs explains screening criteria for individuals participating in Drug Courts. This type of jail diversion program is targeted at offenders with substance use disorders. According to the Center for Prison Reform, the following are the most common eligibility criteria for jail diversion programs.

  • Previous criminal history
  • Current charges
  • Guilty plea
  • Substance use history
  • Mental health concerns
  • Victim approval
  • Amount of restitution owed
  • Arresting officer approval

The program must be utilized for people who need it and for those that do not pose a risk to community safety should they be allowed to remain in the community. Establishing a screening method helps ensure you have the right population in your jail diversion program.

Step Two: Select a Specific Diversion Program

Once you have identified a target population, you need to examine the options available to determine which jail diversion program is right for your offenders and community. Not all jail diversion programs are appropriate for all individuals.

There are numerous options available for designing a jail diversion program, and you can have more than one of them running in your community’s criminal justice system. To start, jail diversion programs can either be formal or informal.

Informal jail diversion programs involve professional discretion in keeping a case out of the criminal justice system based on offender behavior and characteristics. Formal jail diversion programs have varying degrees. For instance, domestic violence offenses may be resolved by having the offender complete a batterer’s intervention or anger management course in exchange for the charges being reduced or dropped. Other conditions may also be imposed, such as an agreement to stay off the location of a retail theft or the completion of community service hours or educational goals. At the highest level, offenders may need to participate in one- or two-year-long specialty court programs, such as Drug Court or Mental Health Court.

Communities can implement various programs to match diverted offenders in a way that best suits their needs and reduces recidivism.

Step Three: Assign Responsibilities for Professionals

After establishing the outline of which offenders you want in your program and what you want your program to look like, it is time to figure out the roles of the professionals in your community. These individuals will be essential in getting offenders into the jail diversion program and ensuring their success.

Numerous professionals are involved at various stages of the jail diversion program process. This first begins with entry into jail diversion programs, with other criminal justice and law professionals capable of applying an offender into a jail diversion program. Once an offender is already involved in the program, numerous professionals are involved in the process to ensure program success and positive outcomes for participants.

Criminal Justice Program Application

Jail diversion can be implemented at various stages in the criminal justice process. Some of the professionals involved in these stages include:

  • Police officers
  • Supervised bail, probation, or parole officers
  • Prosecutors and defense attorneys
  • Judges

Police officers have discretion when it comes to dealing with the public. For example, they may choose to arrest someone or match them with the resource they need at that moment. If someone becomes intoxicated in public but is willing to cooperate with the officer, an arrest is likely unnecessary. Instead, the officer may choose to drive the person home and ensure their safety for the time being.

 When someone is already on community supervision, their supervision officer is responsible for helping offenders identify needs and match them to resources to reduce recidivism and criminal behavior. In some cases, the officer recommends that the individual be applied to a specific jail diversion program, such as a treatment court or community service program.

Prosecutors play a role in jail diversion programs by making them an option in a plea agreement. Likewise, defense attorneys are responsible for explaining this option to their clients. They may also seek this as part of a plea agreement, even if the prosecutor has not already mentioned it.

Judges, who have the least rapport with these individuals, may notice that an offender would be a good candidate for these programs based on various characteristics. Judges may bring this to the attention of the attorneys, community supervision officers, and the offender.

Professionals Involved in the Criminal Justice Programs

As you can imagine, you will likely need a larger group of people for the jail diversion program to run effectively. The professionals required vary based upon the specific jail diversion program used and the offender’s specific needs. Some of these professionals include:

  • Police officers
  • Attorneys
  • Judges
  • Supervised bail, probation, or parole officers
  • Mental health and substance use treatment providers
  • Case managers
  • Victim advocates
  • Support group leaders
  • Community service monitors
  • Peer support or certified recovery specialists

Step Four: Monitor Your Criminal Justice Program’s Progress

The final step, once you have your jail diversion program up and running, is monitoring your program. You must understand the outcomes of your program to determine how effective it has been from one year to the next. This is based on a concept known as evidence-based practice, or EBP for short. EBP utilizes research methods to determine the effectiveness of a program based on various outcomes. For jail diversion programs, two of the most important outcomes are recidivism and cost-effectiveness.

Any criminal justice intervention is designed with reducing recidivism in mind. This means that the criminal justice intervention is intended to prevent the offenders from recidivating or committing another crime. A jail diversion program should reduce recidivism to justify continually keeping offenders out of jails.

Additionally, these programs can have an economic effect on the community. Incarceration is costly for United States taxpayers. On average, the United States spends about $80 billion per year on incarceration. In addition to reducing recidivism, criminal justice programs should also be designed to cut the cost to taxpayers. Many jail diversion programs can accomplish both of these goals.  

However, you will not know if you accomplish these goals unless you have a system to track statistics. For example, you could track data such as:

  • Number of offenders diverted
  • Outcomes of offenders diverted
  • Cost savings on cases that would have otherwise involved incarceration
  • Treatment usage
  • Recidivism reduction
  • Improved education and career standing for diverted offenders

Tracking these data provide a good understanding of program goals. It also helps improve program operation and benefits individual offenders.

Julota provides software for criminal justice professionals that can help to track these data and ensure that your community’s jail diversion program is the most effective that it can be.