Implementing Community-Led Jail Diversion Programs

It’s a fact: individuals with mental illness and/or substance use disorders are three to six times more likely to be represented in the criminal justice system than the general population. It’s also a fact that most of them have not committed a violent crime. Research shows that incarceration is ineffective with minimal impact on reducing crime, while community-led jail diversion programs target underlying problems. 

Most are arrested for simple bizarre behavior or non-violent crimes. Many law enforcement agencies have no alternative, such as bringing them to a mental health clinic. Sadly, they spend an average of 15 months longer in jail for the exact charges as non-mentally ill prisoners. Across the country, jail diversion programs have arisen out of concern for this grossly overrepresented group in the criminal justice system.

Policymakers, stakeholders, prosecutors, law enforcement, and criminal justice system officials are implementing less restrictive, community-led diversion initiatives. The context of these programs is to safely divert individuals from costly incarceration and into programs that efficiently address their behavioral health conditions.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to jail diversion. Most programs seek to minimize contact with the criminal justice system and shift people away from arrest and incarceration.

The most valuable resource for creating and sustaining a successful jail diversion program can be found in proactive, long-term partnerships. These partnerships can include behavioral health professionals, law enforcement, local advocates, criminal justice system officials, and more.

This article will explore ideas for the successful development and implementation of community-led jail diversion programs. Cynthia Kemp, deputy director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), outlined the following steps to follow in creating a successful program:

  1. Begin by finding a champion. Examples might include a police chief, sheriff, judge, or elected official.
  1. Hit the streets. Discuss with law enforcement the types of problems they face with mentally ill individuals entrapped in the criminal justice system. Talk with those in the criminal justice system, such as judges, public defenders, and prosecutors. Speak to local mental health providers, community members with lived experience and their families, and other local advocates.
  1. Compile your data. Research the number of people with mental illnesses in the local jail. What does it cost to keep them there, including medication costs? What is the average length of incarceration of those with mental illness compared to others charged with identical crimes?
  1. Set the table. Once data is compiled, meet with your partners, and formulate a jail diversion plan. Discuss the problems, list possible solutions, and decide upon a schedule for implementing those solutions. 
  1. Implement your plan.
  1. Stay accountable. Schedule weekly or monthly meetings to discuss whether goals are being met. If not, adapt. 
  1. Celebrate successes. Congratulate each other often.
  1. Don’t give up. Always remember that lives are at stake. Be resilient. Be patient with progress. 

Begin by Finding a Champion

Successful jail diversion program planners understand that getting people and organizations to adopt new methods in their professions requires an understanding of human nature. The champions of the Bexar County, Texas Jail Diversion initiative know that all too well.

They attribute their success in creating a National Jail Diversion Toolkit to precisely that. It’s about “technology transfer,” which means getting individuals and organizations to adopt new methods in their respective professions. In other words, you must demonstrate the benefits of change (or consequences of not changing) and make it easy to change.

Hit the Streets and Identify Problems

Jail diversion is a community partnership of many organizational components. City, county, state government, local law enforcement, criminal justice officers, and criminal/civil courts provide the program’s backbone. Cross-system collaborations between these entities and community-based organizations such as mental health providers and facilities, advocates, and individuals with lived experience are vital.

In most communities, some partnerships will already be in place. Strengthen relationships with them by presenting the program’s goals and desired outcomes and asking for their unique input. Seek their participation in establishing operating protocols and eligibility criteria for your program. 

It’s also essential to build new connections with community stakeholders. In addition to those directly involved in the criminal justice system, talk to people with lived experience and their families, mental health professionals, and other advocates. Build relationships of trust through honest dialogue and a free exchange of ideas. Encourage information-sharing throughout the implementation process. 

Compile Your Data to Develop Your Community-Led Jail Diversion Program

Research is vital in the development of your diversion program. Compiling the data required to implement the program means collecting appropriate data as your baseline. The data would answer questions like the number of people in the local jail with mental illnesses, the cost of keeping them, and the average length of incarceration compared with those without mental illnesses.

A webinar hosted by the Council of State Governments (CSG) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance focused on the importance of data in diversion programs. Though the webinar was specific to prosecutor-led programs, it presents an outline that can be applied to any community-led diversion program. Suggestions included the following points:

  1. Consider how data will be collected
  1. Develop evaluation criteria and tools
  1. Address concerns about information sharing
  1. Form a working group of key members from all partners
  1. Schedule regular, frequent meetings to discuss data collection and analysis

Effective data collection and analysis are vital to the success of your program, during implementation and after. You need data to present a consensus for diverting people, make a case for initial and ongoing financial support, and sustain and expand your program. Fortunately, choosing the best technology solution does not need to be an arduous process. 

Julota’s platform effectively addresses the points mentioned above. Data is collected securely through their cloud-based platform, which allows information sharing without access to information protected under HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).

Partners can access information according to the protocols you set in place. You can also define evaluation criteria, and Julota’s interoperability function will provide standardized communication and a streamlined process for its implementation. The platform can also produce reports based on your criteria that stakeholders can use to study program outcomes. 

Set The Table and Implement Your Plan for Community-Led Jail Diversion Program

After you have compiled the necessary data, it is time to meet with your working group and develop your jail diversion plan. Put everything on the table: your data collection and analysis solution, evaluation criteria and tools, program goals, possible challenges and solutions, and an implementation schedule.

There is probably nothing more critical to your success than ensuring access to comprehensive, coordinated treatment for individuals in the program. That means establishing successful partnerships in the community and aligning services early in the process.

Stay Accountable

Once your community-lead jail diversion program is in place, regular, organized meetings where information is shared and problems and plans discussed are essential to its success. Group members should be flexible, receptive to new ideas, and willing to consider necessary compromises.

The agendas should include data regarding the number of participants in the program over a defined time and the number who completed the program. Trends and patterns occurring should be noted and reported by all community partners.

You can be sure lawmakers, funders, and your community members will hold you accountable for the outcomes achieved through the program. Their approval is paramount to the continuation and expansion of your diversion program. 

Celebrate Your Successes

Henry Ford once said: “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” His statement exemplifies the meaning of a successful community-led jail diversion program. As you collaborate with partners and the community, celebrate your commitment to a shared vision and your essential contribution to the success of the program’s participants. Share (with permission) participants’ stories like those of Rachel and Larry, who were part of the David O’Quinn Pre-Trial Diversion & Recovery Program. 

Don’t Give Up

Developing and implementing a successful community-led jail diversion program is no minor feat. It requires patience, perseverance, and persistence. It is important to remember that you are contributing to a better future for the diversion candidates. You are providing them with a chance to change their destiny. With that in mind, remember: Don’t Give Up!

CONCLUSION: Community-Led Jail Diversion Program Development & Implementation

Though incarceration was historically thought to improve public safety, current research shows it is ineffective and has a minimal impact on reducing crime. Community-led jail diversion programs provide a solution that targets the underlying problems that led to the behavior in the first place, such as mental illness. 

Early identification and diversion of those with mental health needs can mean the difference between a productive life and a life of endless cycling within the system. As these alternatives to incarceration gain momentum across the country, we are seeing improvements to long-term community safety and reductions in crime.

 A successful community-led jail diversion program can help end dependence on incarceration while providing services and support that will enhance the participants’ mental, physical, and social well-being. It effectively offers them a second chance to have a different life outcome.