How Law Enforcement can Lead to Jail Diversion

It is a familiar story: Someone is causing a disturbance at a local convenience store. A concerned business owner calls 911. When the police arrive, it becomes clear that the problematic conduct stems from unmanaged mental illness, substance use, or extreme poverty. None of these are most effectively addressed through the criminal legal system. However, traditionally officers have few options other than arrest.   

Recognizing the need for a better solution – something other than a binary arrest/do not arrest – many jurisdictions are developing new strategies that address the underlying unmet needs that can drive persistently disruptive or unlawful conduct.  

What is Arrest Diversion?

In recent decades, jurisdictions across the country have realized that we cannot arrest our way out of problematic conduct driven by unmet needs such as these; this emerging consensus has given rise to a wide variety of diversion efforts.

The term “diversion” has developed a highly flexible definition spawning a vast range of approaches. Most of which still operate within the confines and under the supervision of the criminal legal system, impose specific conditions, or offer short-term responses to the crisis.

For example, so-called therapeutic courts (mental health courts, homeless courts) impose certain obligations and are overseen by judges. Post-arrest and post-filing programs are centered in prosecutors’ offices. Divert-to-treatment programs require individuals to enter into and complete treatment as a condition of diversion. Co-responder models provide short-term interventions triggered by a crisis or a call for emergency service.

In contrast to all of these is LEAD®, first implemented in 2011 as the nation’s first pre-arrest, pre-booking diversion. LEAD diverts people away from the criminal legal system at the earliest possible opportunity – during arrest or resulting from a call for emergency response. With LEAD, trained community-based case managers work in the field – not in offices – to serve and support people over the long-term, without imposing conditions, sanctions, or time limits.

LEAD’s coordinated hand-off out of the criminal legal system and into long-term, harm-reduction community-based care is at the heart of the LEAD “divert-first” model. It is designed to build and prove the value of a new multi-systems pathway out of the criminal legal process and into community-based care for people otherwise too often churned through the criminal justice system or abandoned to fend for themselves. LEAD is not a “program,” any more than a police officer taking somebody to jail is a “program.” Instead, LEAD is a system of response, replacing the traditional pipeline of punishment with long-term, patient, non-coercive, and nonjudgmental care coordination.

Does the LEAD model save money? Ashley Krider, a Senior Policy Associate at research consulting group Policy Research Associates, states:

“While it can be difficult to identify a clean cost-benefit link between diversion versus incarceration due to all the variance in cases (and potential associated issues such as loss of employment after incarceration, recidivism and re-arrest costs after initial release, etc.), there are communities that have publicized diversion cost savings and or cost avoidance. Over a two-year pilot study (2014-2016), Boulder County, Colorado’s co-responder program was estimated to cost about $600,000 annually but save about $3 million annually primarily by reducing jail costs due to fewer incarcerations. The financial impact of jail diversion programs have also been studied at a general level (see this 2013 study which associated a jail diversion program for people with mental illness with about $2800 lower taxpayer costs per person two years after the point of diversion). According to one-lifetime simulation model speaking to substance use in particular, diversion to community-based treatment rather than prison for just 10 percent of eligible offenders could save the criminal justice system $4.8 billion across the U.S. diverting 40 percent of eligible offenders could save $12.9 billion (Zarkin et al., 2012).

In addition to jail, many individuals with a behavioral health crisis end up in the hospital E.D. when there are few other alternatives. So planning for crisis services should consider potential cost savings from the unnecessary hospital and E.D. use. The SAMHSA publication Crisis Services: Effectiveness, Cost-Effectiveness, and Funding Strategies, cites a 2013 Wilder Research study that examined the return on investment of crisis stabilization programs in Minnesota. The study found a return of $2.16 for every dollar invested in the crisis stabilization services due to savings in inpatient, outpatient, and E.D. utilization. The publication also cites a Psychiatric Services article (Scott, 2000), which analyzed a mobile crisis program’s efficiency by comparing it to regular police intervention. In this study, mobile crisis services resulted in a 23 percent lower average cost per case.

One other note is that there is a rough estimate that it takes approximately two years of someone being diverted and remaining in the community for “cost savings” at the individual level to begin. During those first 24 months, there is typically more of a “cost shifting” from the criminal justice to the behavioral health system while the person might be going through higher levels of care to address the issues they need to in order to remain in the community, to use lower levels of care in the behavioral health system, and to remain out of the criminal justice system. The 2013 Cowell jail diversion study references this.”

How diversion strategies can reduce recidivism

One example of a police-led diversion program is the Brattleboro Community Justice Center’s Justice Alternatives. In this program, officers can write a referral form for the program when issuing a citation for misdemeanors such as noise violations, unlawful trespass, unlawful mischief, and other offenses. If the offending individual opts-in and completes the requirements, then they are not charged.

The program’s requirements are designed for each particular situation. They may also involve a Restorative Justice panel process where the individual takes responsibility for their actions by talking through how they have harmed their fellow community members.

“Because of the consequences of having a charge on your record, people are super grateful for the opportunity,” said Jackie Trepanier, the program coordinator for Justice Alternatives, “Not just to not have a criminal record but also to address this thing they did in a way that helps them move forward just as much as anybody else.”

The chance to avoid being charged is very significant. Just being arrested can have significant negative consequences for individuals, even if the charges are later dismissed. An individual’s name might be included in a public police log, causing embarrassment and potential harm to their social life and employment. They may be financially harmed by having to pay fees associated with their arrest. They could miss work while sitting in jail and lose their job. Their arrest record may show up in background checks and impede their ability to become employed or find housing, worsening their problem later.

All of these negative impacts are what push individuals into frequent run-ins with the criminal justice system. A well-implemented jail diversion program can not only prevent these types of negative impacts, but offer access to meaningful mental health and drug treatment, housing, job training, and other community resources to break the cycle of recidivism.

Evidence of LEAD’s Success

A 2016 evaluation of Seattle LEAD’s impact found that participants were over twice as likely to be sheltered during the 18-month follow-up after their referral and 89% more likely to have obtained permanent housing. Additionally, each contact participants had with their case manager was associated with a 2% increase in their likelihood of obtaining shelter and a 5% increase in obtaining permanent housing. Participants were also 46% more likely to be on the employment continuum (i.e., receiving vocational training, employed, retired) after their referral, and 33% more likely to have income and or benefits.[1]

Improving the material conditions of participants’ lives and addressing behavioral health needs have been shown to reduce recidivism both in the short- and long-term for participants. LEAD interrupted the street-to-jail-to-street revolving door for people arrested for low-level conduct [2] and has, in recent years, expanded to many jurisdictions throughout the County and expanded the scope of individuals served.

How LEAD can lower criminal justice and legal system costs

A 2019 study of LEAD’s implementation in Seattle showed that the program was associated with a statistically significant drop in criminal justice and legal system utilization and associated costs. The reduced number of jail bookings, days in jail per year, and odds of prison incarceration led to a pre-to-post reduction in legal costs of $2100 per participant, as opposed to an increase of $5961 for the control.[3]

By reducing the number of people with behavioral health disorders in the criminal justice system, diversion programs can significantly minimize the cost of arresting, booking, jailing, prosecuting, and imprisoning low-level offenders. These programs, at their best, also give individuals the resources they need to lead more productive and fruitful lives.

How has new technology made introducing LEAD easier than ever?

LEAD is being replicated in dozens of jurisdictions across the United States and internationally, and smart technology platforms and data systems – such as those offered by Julota – can substantially advance operational efficiency, program efficacy, and reporting. These platforms help streamline inter-agency data sharing among entities as diverse as law enforcement, behavioral health agencies, direct service providers, and fire/EMS services.

Julota’s data-sharing platform is reliable, secure, and easy for multiple partner organizations to share. With cloud computing, Julota allows an interdisciplinary case management team, including law enforcement, medical professionals, case managers, mental health professionals, and social service agencies, to share up-to-date data without investing in any special hardware. The workflow is better yet compliant with all data privacy and security regulations that govern law enforcement and behavioral health information systems, including HIPAA, 42 CFR Part 2 (to protect substance use treatment records), and CJIS.

There are obvious benefits to individuals who are diverted from the cycle of arrest and incarceration. Do not forget the reduced stress on law enforcement from dealing with high utilizers. Moreover, the potential financial benefit of reduced criminal justice and legal costs to municipalities. With the ease with which jail diversion programs can now be coordinated among multiple agencies, why wouldn’t you want to introduce a diversion program in your community?


[1] https://56ec6537-6189-4c37-a275-02c6ee23efe0.filesusr.com/ugd/6f124f_dbde96f835db4526abf7bfda03d0040f.pdf

[2] https://56ec6537-6189-4c37-a275-02c6ee23efe0.filesusr.com/ugd/6f124f_f4eed992eaff402f88ddb4a649a9f5e6.pdf

[3] https://56ec6537-6189-4c37-a275-02c6ee23efe0.filesusr.com/ugd/6f124f_522be57effe6443b8180c4f3571b4324.pdf?index=true