Collaborative Efforts: Enhancing Early Jail Diversion Through Law Enforcement and Behavioral Health Partnerships

What is Early Jail Diversion

Early jail diversion typically refers to diversion efforts that precede formal arrest. This is opposed to diversion methods, which occur later in the criminal justice process at conviction or sentencing.

Early diversion offers a significant opportunity to reduce contact with the criminal justice system. While diversion from conviction or sentencing can provide a chance to prevent the life-changing consequences of a criminal record, early diversion can do even more to prevent recidivism, exacerbated mental health and substance abuse issues, and the trauma to individuals and their families associated with incarceration.

Arrest records alone are often challenging to remove from public records, even when no conviction is followed. For exceptionally vulnerable populations, such as juveniles and those who struggle with mental illness, this reduced contact with the criminal justice system can prevent a series of tragic events from occurring.

The Police, Treat, Community Collaborative has identified five methods or pathways for Early, Pre-Arrest Diversion. These methods stand to serve different populations in your community.

The first pathway is self-referral, where an individual experiencing substance abuse voluntarily initiates contact with law enforcement (or another first responder such as a firefighter, EMS, paramedic, etc.) to seek a treatment referral. This pathway for diversion will only function properly in a community with shared knowledge of access to treatment and diversion programs.

The second pathway is active outreach. Many communities have implemented homeless or veteran outreach programs to pre-emptively seek out individuals who are likely to face law enforcement contact in the future. This pathway helps communities develop the sense of trust needed to utilize the first pathway discussed above. Outreach programs often provide individuals with the only contact they have had with law enforcement that does not result in arrest, and this can create waves of change in terms of shared knowledge and trust in public safety figures.

The third pathway is a specific type of active outreach aimed at individuals who have suffered a recent drug overdose. This pathway specifically targets individuals who are at risk for serious harm from continued use of alcohol or controlled substances. Often, these individuals cycle through hospitals or jails, so implementing diversion methods for this population can result in massive cost savings.

The fourth pathway is officer prevention. This is the typical method of diversion where officers on patrol encounter individuals suffering from a mental health crisis, substance abuse overdose, or are members of another vulnerable population. Instead of arrest, these individuals are offered treatment. This pathway provides massive reductions in local jail populations and can significantly reduce recidivism in individuals with previous incarceration history.

The fifth and final pathway is officer intervention. This diversion method is officer prevention but is used in more serious situations. In this case, treatment will still be initiated at the point of contact with law enforcement. Still, charges will be filed and held until the successful completion of the treatment program or other program is shown to the presiding court. Communities that implement this method may be able to utilize diversion programs for individuals facing more serious drug or related charges that would not be an appropriate fit for traditional early jail diversion programs.

How can Law Enforcement and Behavioral Health Agencies Collaborate

The general principle behind collaborating law enforcement and behavioral health agencies is that communities can be better served if law enforcement agencies are highly connected to community service providers.

This collaboration can take many forms, such as bi-weekly meetings, separate state-funded oversight agencies, or individuals within these agencies taking up a collaborative mission independently. However, a co-responder program is the most effective method for implementing a holistic, cooperative effort in your community.

By combining the expertise of multiple fields, co-responder programs function by utilizing a combination of traditional law enforcement responders with additional real-time support from social services agencies. One way this has been implemented in several cities with success is the pairing of a law enforcement officer and a social worker in a patrol car together on shift in high-need service areas.

Several vulnerable populations in your community may benefit from the collaborative efforts involved in an early jail diversion program. These include but are not limited to individuals with mental health concerns, individuals who abuse controlled substances, and juveniles. The unique needs of your community will determine where an early jail diversion program will offer the most benefit.

Mental Health Diversion

Mental health diversion programs have been one of the most widely implemented and most successful forms of diversion programs nationwide. Many cities and counties that were seeing disproportionately high numbers of mentally ill populations being incarcerated for low-level offenses have chosen to pair mental health professionals with law enforcement professionals to respond to mental health calls.

One specific example of how collaborative diversion efforts can better serve a population with mental health needs is the benefit provided by a community in which police officers can search in real-time for availability at emergency mental health clinics. Police officers can then inform clinics when they are on the way with a patient. This can significantly reduce the time the officer is out of service and the patient’s wait before receiving treatment.

Substance Abuse Diversion

The need for substance abuse diversion may be evident in certain communities where local jails are predominantly occupied by individuals detoxing from a substance and/or serving time pre-trial for a low-level drug possession charge because they cannot afford to post a cash or bond bail.

Reductions in recidivism have been reported in areas that have already implemented substance abuse diversion programs. Substance Abuse Diversion Programs may also be a perfect example of how collaboration alone, without creating separate agencies or additional funding, can support better service to individuals in your community.

Law enforcement officers functioning in a traditional format, as opposed to a co-responder program, often have a piecemeal, at best, knowledge of what substance abuse programs are available in their local area. Even with a bevy of learning and training, which likely does not exist, officers in this traditional format still have complete discretion as to whether to share this information about substance abuse treatment options with potential arrestees and whether or not to choose an emergency mental health option over incarceration.

In a full-functioning co-responder program with a substance abuse diversion component, a high-level strategy exists to handle the community’s response to mental health calls. This strategy necessarily involves a dual response from a law enforcement officer and a mental health professional. This collaboration allows for a much higher probability that individuals suffering from a mental health crisis will be given the emergency medical treatment that they need outside of a jail setting.

Juvenile Diversion

Another extremely popular and beneficial form of diversion is that aimed at juveniles. At this point, we are well aware of the negative stigma and long list of consequences that stem from early involvement with the criminal justice system. There are myriad reasons for your community to invest in alternative options for juveniles who commit low-level offenses.

Studies at both the federal and state level have shown that juvenile diversion programs offer massive recidivism benefits compared to traditional juvenile justice systems. Juveniles exhibiting criminal activity often could benefit from involvement with several social services agencies. These juveniles also likely live with families or people who could also benefit from access to services.

The decreases in recidivism have shown that collaboration in the early diversion setting has real, significant consequences for individuals and communities. The impact of avoiding incarceration is heightened for an individual who is in one of their most vulnerable intellectual, social, and developmental stages.

Benefits of Using a Data-Driven Program to Support Your Early Jail Diversion Efforts

The topic of collaboration among law enforcement and behavioral health organizations is still a relatively new one in the world of criminal justice. For the most part, law enforcement agencies were built to serve as information silos, not interacting with any community agencies. States and local communities have realized over the last 30 years that this strategy is ineffective. Communities can save massive financial resources and better serve their vulnerable populations with collaborative efforts.

An effective diversion program requires effective data sharing between multiple agencies. The ease with which this data is shared improves actual outcomes in your community. One of the easiest and safest methods for data sharing is cloud-based programs.

One reason collaborative efforts often fail is that the agencies involved are governed by significantly different federal, state, and local laws, all of which have different levels of required data protection. Julota’s cloud-based program ensures compliance with all relevant federal, state, and local laws. Community stakeholders can rest easy knowing this vital and sensitive information is being guarded with the highest data security measures.

Adding a data-sharing platform to your existing diversion program can greatly increase collaboration because law enforcement professionals, medical doctors, substance abuse counselors, child and family services workers, and other front-line human services professionals will all be able to access shared data in real time. If increasing collaboration in your community diversion programs is your goal, a cloud-based data platform, such as Julota, is your best investment.