The Most Common Complaints About How Jail Diversion Programs Work, and Why They’re Nonsense

It’s no secret that our criminal justice system needs reform. With startling statistics like the United States holding 25% of the world’s prison population despite only having 5% of the world’s population, it is evident that something needs to change. One area that is becoming more prevalent but is still often overlooked is jail diversion programs. In this article, we look at how jail diversion programs work and the common complaints associated with them.

How Jail Diversion Programs Function

Jail diversion programs vary depending on the jurisdiction’s needs, but they typically include mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and housing assistance. Jail diversion programs are usually run by law enforcement agencies, courts, and or corrections systems in partnership with mental health providers.

People who come into contact with the criminal justice system may be referred to a jail diversion program by a police officer, prosecutor, public defender, probation officer, or judge. Once enrolled in a program, participants receive services designed to meet their needs and address the underlying causes of their involvement in the criminal justice system.

Jail diversion programs can be preventative or post-arrest/pre-trial in nature. Pre-arrest/pre-trial diversion programs provide services to people not yet charged with a crime. Post-arrest/pre-trial diversion programs offer services to people who have been arrested but not yet convicted of a crime.

Diversionary sentencing is a type of diversion program available to people who have been convicted of a crime. Under this program, judges sentence participants to community-based treatment instead of prison time. Participants must still meet specific requirements, such as attending therapy sessions and taking medication. If they comply with these requirements, they can avoid prison time.

These programs aim to keep people out of jail by providing services that address the underlying causes of their criminal behavior.

MYTH: How Jail Diversion Programs Work Are Too Lenient

Jail diversion programs are often criticized for being too lenient on offenders. Critics say that these programs allow people who have committed crimes to avoid facing the consequences of their actions because people who go through diversion programs rarely receive any significant punishments, even if they commit serious crimes.

The argument is that this sends the wrong message to offenders and the community. It tells offenders that their crimes aren’t that bad, and it tells the community that we don’t take crime seriously. Opponents of jail diversion programs believe we need to start handing out harsher punishments to those who go through diversion so that offenders and the community know that we mean business regarding crime.


This argument is simply not valid. Diversion programs are a vital part of the criminal justice system, and they help to ensure that people who have committed low-level offenses are not unnecessarily incarcerated.

Diversion programs often require participants to complete community service or attend counseling sessions. Some programs provide intensive supervision, with weekly meetings and check-ins. Other programs are more relaxed, with monthly or bi-monthly meetings. The level of supervision depends on the severity of the crime.

Most jail diversion programs require participants to meet regularly with a case manager. The case manager will help them develop a plan to stay out of trouble and stay on track. They will also connect them with resources like job training, substance abuse counseling, and housing assistance. Participants in diversion programs must comply with certain conditions, and if they fail to comply with the terms of their program, they can be brought back into the criminal justice system.

MYTH: How Jail Diversion Programs Work Are Not Cost-Effective

Jail diversion programs can be expensive, and some critics say they are not cost-effective.


Many people don’t realize that these programs can save money in the long run. For example, incarcerating an individual in state prison costs an average of $31,286 annually. Research shows that every dollar invested into drug treatment saves $12 by reducing future crime and healthcare expenses. Additionally, if just 10% of eligible individuals received substance abuse treatment rather than prison, the criminal justice system would save more than $4.5 billion.

MYTH: They Do Not Deter Crime

Critics of jail diversion programs say that they do not deter crime. They argue that these programs allow offenders to avoid going to jail, making it more likely that they will commit crimes in the future.

Jail diversion programs often do more to deter crime than incarceration. Many incarcerated people come from disadvantaged backgrounds and don’t have access to resources like food, shelter, and clothing. Jail diversion programs can provide these resources and help participants get back on their feet. When released from prison, people often face several barriers to reentering society, such as having trouble getting a job or finding housing. They may also struggle with addiction or mental health issues. Jail diversion programs can provide the support people need to successfully reenter society and avoid returning to prison.

Research has shown that diversion programs are effective at reducing recidivism rates. One study found that participants in a drug court program were significantly less likely to be re-arrested than those who went through the traditional criminal justice system. Diversion programs allow people to get the help they need without being subjected to the negative consequences of incarceration, such as job loss and family disruption.

MYTH: How Jail Diversion Programs Work Are Unfair to Victims

Some people argue that the way jail diversion programs work are unfair to victims of crime. The argument goes something like this:

–          Diversion programs give offenders a sense of unjustified leniency given the severity of their crime. This can be particularly damaging for victims who see the offender receiving preferential treatment.

–          Jail diversion programs often do not adequately address the needs of victims. These programs typically focus on rehabilitating offenders, with little thought given to the emotional needs of victims.


While it may seem like jail diversion programs let offenders off easy, victims benefit in several ways. First, these programs can help break the cycle of crime and prevent future victims from being harmed. Second, jail diversion programs often require offenders to make restitution to their victims as part of their sentence. This can provide some measure of closure and help the victim move on from the trauma they’ve experienced. Finally, by completing a jail diversion program, an offender shows they are willing to take responsibility for their actions and make amends—something that can provide some comfort to a victim struggling to forgive.

Successful Jail Diversion Programs in the United States

There are a variety of different jail diversion programs being implemented across the country, and they are having a significant impact on reducing recidivism rates. Here are two examples of successful jail diversion programs in the United States:

1.     Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) in Seattle, WA

In 2011, the Seattle Police Department launched the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program. LEAD is a pre-charge diversion program that gives police officers the discretion to refer people engaging in low-level drug activity to community-based services instead of arresting them.

The LEAD program has been highly successful. A study found that participants were 58% less likely to be rearrested than people who did not participate in the program. The study also found that participants were more likely to find housing and employment and less likely to use drugs than those who did not participate in the program.

2.     Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) in Memphis, TN

The Memphis Police Department created the CIT program in 1988 in response to a series of police shootings of people with mental illness. The CIT program is a 40-hour training course that teaches police officers how to de-escalate situations involving people with mental illness and connect them with treatment instead of arrest.

Since its inception, the CIT program has significantly reduced arrests and improved outcomes for people with mental illness. A study found that officers who participated in the CIT program were more likely to use de-escalation techniques and less likely to use force when responding to calls involving people with mental illness. The study also found that CIT-trained officers were more likely to connect people with mental illness to community-based services and less likely to arrest them than officers who did not receive CIT training.

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