Jail Diversion Programs: Expectations Versus Reality

Jail diversion programs are traditionally seen as an excellent alternative to incarceration. However, they are not without their limitations. Of course, there are numerous benefits to these programs.

The expectation and hope are that they will help reduce recidivism. While this is true in many instances, they can only go so far. In reality, there are some impediments to diverting offenders. But these are great incubators and are the best anti-recidivism option that the criminal justice system offers.

There are many pros and cons of jail diversion programs, and we hope to bring both sides to light.

Expected “Pros” of Jail Diversion Programs

  • Restoration
  • Rehabilitation
  • Recidivism reduction
  • Cost-effectiveness

Potential “Cons” of Jail Diversion Programs

  • Leniency
  • Underutilization
  • Accessibility

What is a Jail Diversion Program?

Jail diversion programs are designed to keep offenders out of the justice system unless necessary. In many cases, this is employed in the pretrial phase. In this phase, the offender can remain in the community while awaiting the formal trial. Forty-eight states have implemented some form of pretrial diversion program.

Jail diversion programs can be both informal and formal. Informal jail diversions programs are utilized when the criminal justice system decides that the case would be best kept out of the system entirely. For example, this includes minor offenses where the offender is cooperative and does not display a threat to the community.

On the other hand, formal jail diversion programs allow individuals to avoid jail time or more severe sanctions if certain conditions are being met. For example, this could include a domestic violence case where the offender takes a Batterer’s Intervention class in place of being incarcerated. But, again, these are meant to take a more rehabilitative, rather than a punitive, stance in the criminal justice system.

Expectation: The Benefits of Jail Diversion Programs

Again, jail diversion programs are often seen as the number one option for justice-involved individuals. Indeed, there are numerous benefits to jail diversion programs. Some of these include:

  • Restoration
  • Rehabilitation
  • Recidivism reduction
  • Cost-effectiveness

Restoration and Program Implementation

Restorative justice aims to make whole what has been lost by victims and communities during the commission of a crime. Therefore, one aspect of jail diversion programs is the implementation of restorative justice principles.

For instance, jail diversion programs allow offenders to compensate victims financially by continuing to work in the community. Jail diversion programs can also involve victims as desired in order to come to an emotional resolution between the two parties, such as offenders writing a formal apology to the victim as one of the conditions.

In addition, the community as a whole also benefits from restorative justice in jail diversion programs. For instance, jail diversion programs may require community service to avoid incarceration.

Rehabilitation of Criminal Offenders

Programs of this sort bring justice to the victims and community and allow a second chance for offenders as well. Rather than being locked away to dwell on their actions, offenders have the opportunity to better themselves.

Special conditions of jail diversion programs are tailored to the offenders’ criminogenic (crime-causing) needs. Common special conditions include employment, general education, and education related to specific offenses, such as DUI driving classes, Batterer’s Intervention, anger management, etc.

Specific therapies may also be required to allow the offender to deal with mental health concerns and past traumas that may have contributed to the acts.

Participating in these programs also allows offenders to understand better their community as a whole and the consequences of their actions. It forces them to learn their role in their communities and how their actions directly affect the people around them.

Jail diversion programs also give offenders a better chance of having a more productive and meaningful future thanks to the benefits they provide. For instance, these programs typically allow offenders to avoid convictions or have lower-level charges.

This, of course, translates into better outcomes for housing, education, employment, and many other areas of life.

Recidivism Reduction

Jail diversion programs are linked to significantly lower recidivism rates than those of offenders in traditional criminal justice system models. This is seen throughout various areas of the United States and among both juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.

The ACLU notes that jail diversion programs reduce recidivism and improve long-term community safety overall.

Cook County in Illinois is well-known as a model jail diversion program that many other counties and states base their programs on. In 2018, it was reported that 97% of felony offenders that had graduated the program had no new felony arrests after completing the program. Additionally, 86% had no further charges of any level.

Another well-known jail diversion program is the Criminal Mental Health Project (CMHP) in Miami-Dade County, Florida. The program, founded in 2000, has an annual recidivism rate of 20%. In comparison, offenders that do not participate in CMHP have an annual recidivism rate of 75%.

Cost-Effectiveness of Diverting Criminal Offenders

Simply put, incarceration is costly. It requires state and county finances to pay for individuals who have no real way of contributing to the community because they are housed in prison. Among 45 states in 2015, the total cost for inmate care was about $43 billion.

Not only do jail diversion programs improve life quality for victims, offenders, and the community, but they also prove to be the most cost-effective criminal justice option.

One aspect of the criminal justice system where this is seen the most is substance abuse. Approximately 65% of criminal offenders have a diagnosed substance use disorder (SUD).

An additional 20% do not meet the SUD criteria but were noted to be under the influence when they committed their crime.

Studies have shown that investing in treatment for these offenders through jail diversion programs rather than incarceration yields incredible financial gains. In fact, every dollar invested in substance use treatment saves about $12 in crime and health care expenses.

Reality: The Potential Negatives

Of course, no program is without its flaws, even something as impressive as jail diversion programs. Some issues include:

  • Leniency
  • Underutilization
  • Accessibility

Are They Too Lenient?

Unsurprisingly, some people have questioned the standards and effectiveness of jail diversion programs. These could be seen as putting offenders’ rights before their victims.

In many jail diversion programs, arguments are made that sanctions are too lenient compared to incarceration and harsher punishments.

For example, a domestic violence incident could result in the offender taking anger management or domestic violence class as part of the jail diversion program. While these have proven effective in educating the offender and changing their mindset, many see this as the offender getting off too easily after having assaulted someone.

Underutilization of the Programs is a Problem

It is no secret that jail diversion programs are used far less often than they ought to be. This is especially true in felony cases.

Offenders that commit more severe crimes tend to have more issues that require intensive therapy and rehabilitative justice interventions than those that commit low-level offenses. However, jail diversion programs are only applied in 9% of felony cases nationwide.

One study from the ACLU noted that 94% of respondents believed that jail diversion programs should be utilized more often.

Accessibility is Limited to Low-Level Offenders

On the note of underutilization, it is also no secret that jail diversion programs are not very accessible to specific groups of offenders. Typically, these programs are saved for low-level or first-time offenders. While this is great for these offenders, it ignores the individuals in the criminal justice system with typically higher needs; repeat offenders with a higher risk for recidivism.

Numerous other eligibility criteria prevent offenders from accessing these services. The ACLU notes that prosecutors play a prominent role in this issue. Prosecutors are measured on the number of cases they win and not the number of individuals they divert.  

In addition, while jail diversion programs are cost-effective for governments, this is not always the case for the offenders themselves. Various charges are incurred by the offenders, including program application fees, drug tests, required classes and treatment, supervision fees, transportation costs, and more. The financial burden for these individuals may be too high to overcome.

Overall Impression of Jail Diversion Programs

Though these programs have their hurdles, there is no arguing that they are an impressive alternative to incarceration. However, jail diversion programs can be failures or incredible, depending on the effort put into them.

By ensuring that the right professionals are involved and that programs are accessible to those with high criminogenic needs, states and counties can create safer communities and more productive citizens.

So, where do we go from here? As the criminal justice system implements these diversion programs, it is essential to maintain standards for the professionals working in them and the offenders involved to ensure that all conditions are met. Julota software is available to help law enforcement agencies and other organizations maintain communication about individuals engaged in jail diversion programs.

For instance, the Julota platform is an excellent way to verify that offenders complete special conditions ordered by jail diversion programs. Julota software also allows these individuals to be connected with needed services promptly.

Jail diversion programs are absolutely the future of the justice system. At this time, the pros vastly outweigh the cons. The cons can also be improved through time by making these programs more accessible, both financially and eligibility-wise, for offenders.

Education about these programs to criminal justice organizations and communities is essential. By implementing these programs, communities will become safer places to live and significantly drop recidivism rates.