How to Save Taxpayer Money with Jail Diversion

As the overall economy appears to be potentially slipping into a recession, people are reevaluating their finances and asking the government to do the same. So naturally, programs funded solely or predominantly by taxpayer money would then strive to show that they are a fiscally smart choice for community investment.

The criminal justice system and community mental health programs are two entities that understand the need to be as fiscally responsible as possible. Understandably, they strive to be especially accountable when seeking to undertake additional programs such as substance abuse treatment or mental health diversion programs.

The Need for Jail Diversion Programs

The purpose of the criminal justice system in America is to reform criminals so they can maintain appropriate activity in society and then secondarily punish dangerous criminals and keep society from harm by removing violent offenders from society, thus providing comfort and a measure of peace to victims.

Very obvious to everyone is that people entering the criminal justice system are never really given the opportunity to reform. Therefore, these goals aren’t served well for many individuals who have been imprisoned.

Jails and prisons across the country are at their breaking point, overloaded with inmates and their needs. Some places may struggle to provide everything necessary regarding basic needs, much less have the resources to provide the complex treatment and environment that some offenders need to decrease the likelihood of re-offending when released.

These shortages and lack of available resources can lead to tragedy in some instances. Individuals and systems can only do so much when they are overextended beyond both capacity and area of expertise.

Those with mental health concerns do not have their needs met in jail or prison as they cannot be treated effectively or efficiently. Individuals with significant mental health concerns often need intensive and specialized care that is next to impossible to manage appropriately in a justice system setting intended for reform and punishment. Under the best of circumstances, it is difficult for those with severe mental illness to learn to manage their symptoms well and interact in more healthy ways to function in society.

Add in the complication of being surrounded by violent offenders or individuals with traits that are more anti-social and who may manipulate those with mental illness for their own gain; the task can seem next to impossible for not only those individuals but also those who are trying to help them.

Additionally, those individuals who have the added need of learning to recover from substance dependence are served even less as that adds to the complexity of their treatment needs. Some treatments are most effective for substance abuse recovery, and they are not well enacted in a jail or prison setting.

When individuals do not receive the treatment their situation requires, they return to the community and re-offend, causing further problems for themselves and the community.

Jail Diversion Programs Explained

Diversion programs can exist at any level of the justice program. For example, some programs exist pre-booking; before the individual has any significant interaction with the system, they are diverted to specialized care.

Some programs are post-booking after charges have been filed but before a plea is entered, and others are post plea; these may require the individual to plead guilty to obtain diverted treatment. Of these, post-booking is currently the most common and requires that all systems involved interact around the criminal justice system, ensuring the individual follows through with treatment to have charges dropped or fines waived.

The main idea behind jail diversion is that resources are focused in the right areas and used most efficiently and effectively. For example, individuals with mental health as their primary problem would be diverted to a program that focuses on mental health treatment.

Individuals with substance abuse disorders would be diverted to specialized treatment to ensure the best possible chance for long-term recovery and address underlying issues causing the addiction disorder.

Just as physical health disorders require specialized treatment with well-trained physicians, mental health disorders also require specialized treatment with professionals who know evidence-based treatment protocols and can enact them.

Just as someone with a physical illness is unlikely to recover quickly in a dirty, germ-ridden environment, someone with a mental illness cannot recover quickly in a poorly suited environment for managing their disorder. Diversion programs seek to address these needs.

Cost of Incarceration Programs

America currently has the highest imprisonment rate in the world; in 2019, over 2 million individuals were incarcerated in the US, a number that has vastly increased since the 1980s and the so-called war on drugs. Of these individuals, over 60% are jailed for nonviolent offenses.

The cost of caring for an individual’s needs in jail/prison 24/7/365 for the year 2020 was determined to be $39,158; considering that the median real income level in the US for 2019 was below that number at $35,977, it is safe to say that incarceration doesn’t pay for anyone, not the offender and not the American community and taxpayer. 

While the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that this means that the prison system costs taxpayers $81 Billion per year, a study completed by the Prison Policy Initiative looked into costs and found that the prison system more accurately costs federal and state governments and communities $182 Billion annually which would more than double the yearly cost of imprisonment.

Based on estimates of the jail and prison population with severe mental health disorders impacting their decision-making, 56% of those are individuals who could be treated more effectively in a mental health setting, and an estimated 85% of individuals in the justice system need substance abuse treatment. In addition, there are much lower recidivism rates for diversion programs than prison programs for these individuals.

A thorough meta-analysis of more than 70 different diversion programs for adolescents showed that targeted diversion programs are more effective at reducing recidivism across the board than incarceration programs. 

Considering the numbers, it is easy to see that diversion programs are a win-win for everyone involved.

It is important to remember that anyone incarcerated is not only any longer contributing to their family or society as a whole in any way, but they essentially become a ward of the government. Taxpayers then become responsible for providing food, shelter, to a certain extent, entertainment, training, and perhaps most costly of all, medical care. In addition, violence within prisons is high, and injuries and illness are frequent occurrences. These are all costly to the American taxpayer, adding more and more required funding to be utilized there.

It would then seem a markedly more fiscally responsible choice to minimize long-term imprisonment and find alternatives to increase the likelihood that offenders will not re-offend and stay in prison or return not long after release. Considering the cost of incarceration alone, there are substantial savings in utilizing diversion to reduce recidivism.

Savings Based on Costs to the Community

Actual jail and prison-specific funding are not the only costs that diversion programs abate. Societal costs such as lost earnings, adverse physical and mental health effects, and damage done to families of those who end up incarcerated are also factors.

When these community costs are added, the estimated cost of the criminal justice system to the country adds up to over $1 trillion, which is just the short-term cost.

Consider also that incarceration tends to become a generational cycle, with sons following in their father’s footsteps; some as young as ten years old or younger seeking to help mom pay the bill on her own, then take to selling drugs on the street because they don’t know any other way to help. That same ten-year-old then ends up involved in the juvenile justice system in a few years and has charges on his record that severely limits his opportunities for training, education, or a better life by the time he is 17 or 18 years old. So the cycle continues, the cost to the community continues, and the cost to the family continues. 

Conversely, in diversion programs, offenders who are not dangerous to the community may remain in the community, learn new skills for a career, and receive help for previously undiagnosed or untreated mental illness. As a result, these individuals can continue to help contribute to their family’s well-being. In addition, these individuals can maintain stable employment—the community benefits from their rehabilitation, new skill set, and a new outlook.

Jail diversion saves not only the initial cost of incarceration but also the public benefits that the family may need to make ends meet with a wage-earner no longer earning wages, the subsidized care for children that is now required as the family’s income is depleted, the cost that the family pays for the incarcerated individual to have access to things like phone time so they can stay in touch. 

The incarceration costs are much higher than just the cost to house the individual. So if it hurts a family in the community financially, in reality, it costs everyone.

Costs and Savings of Jail Diversion Programs

The average cost of a diversion program in the US is around $150,000 annually. Therefore, if only five individuals per year never return to prison again, the diversion program has more than paid for itself. In addition, the research and evidence show that the number of people who benefit long-term from diversion programs is much higher. 

A 2010 study focused on substance abuse found that diverting just 10 percent of eligible offenders into drug treatment could save $4.8 billion, and diverting 40 percent could save just under $13 billion.

In Alabama, one county saves $800,000 a year through diversion alone. Part of this is through multiple hundred thousand paid in restitution and fines paid to victims that would not be an option if individuals were incarcerated instead.

Data from a diversion program in Montana found that individuals who participated only had a 17% recidivism rate. In addition, a program in Oklahoma focused on mental health saves taxpayers over $2 million a year.

If you doubt the data from other areas, conduct a study in your area. Begin to keep track of the number of individuals with primarily mental health, substance abuse, or low-level offenses tied to poverty-related needs. Consider the costs of jail or prison time for these individuals and how these are likely to continue to add up throughout each individual’s life without significant intervention.

If you need a way as a community to keep track of this data in your jail diversion program, you may need a tool like Julota. Julota is a cloud-based information/data program dedicated to helping communities implement more efficient community programs.

Julota is completely HIPAA-/mental health (42 CFR part 2)-/Criminal Justice Information System- compliant. Additionally, Julota can interface with any law enforcement CAD system. Using Julota can help your community keep track of individuals served or in need of service and provide data to help you determine how much a diversion program could save your community.