Undeniable Proof that Jail Diversion Programs Work

An Analysis of Established Programs and Their Effect on their Communities

Jail Diversion Programs Explained

There is a growing recognition that we need to change how our emergency services (EMS, Law Enforcement) are left with the burden of first response for people struggling with mental health and substance abuse. Many progressive communities and programs have taken this first step with innovative programs designed to get people to help rather than incarcerate. The way the system had been designed is no longer working well. In the U.S., since the sudden deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities in the 1950s and 1960s, more and more responsibilities have fallen squarely and unfairly on the shoulders of first responders and the justice system

No system can sustain this level of sudden responsibility and influx of high-needs individuals. Especially not when the system was never designed to manage the specific needs of the mental health population at all. Much less to the order of magnitude that it is currently required to tolerate. It is differentiating between individuals committing criminal acts “just because” versus those struggling with the symptoms of mental illness is a complex process that takes specialized training and practice and should never have fallen on individuals trained in handling completely different matters.

The purpose of the criminal justice system in America has a few different aims: to reform criminals, so they can maintain appropriate activity in society, to punish criminals and keep others in society from harm by removing violent offenders from society, and to provide comfort and a measure of peace to victims by serving justice to perpetrators. Unfortunately, however, these goals aren’t met for many individuals who have been imprisoned.

Those with mental health concerns are not served well in jail or prison as they cannot be treated effectively during incarceration. These individuals need intensive and specialized care that is next to impossible to manage appropriately in this setting to learn to manage their symptoms well and interact in more healthy ways in society. Additionally, those individuals who have the added need to recover from substance dependence are served even less well, which adds to the complexity of their treatment needs.

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.

Prisons are increasingly overcrowded, making it difficult to maintain any level of effective treatment, much less the more expensive treatment needed for those with substance or mental health needs. While numbers vary, 56% of those in state prisons have mental health problems, with about 16% being a severe mental illness (i.e., schizophrenia or similar). Likewise, it is estimated that in state prisons, 53% are primarily in need of substance abuse treatment, and in local jails, that number jumps to 68%.

Imagine the load taken off the criminal justice system if those individuals were treated in a more specialized setting.

Diversion programs exist at any level of the criminal justice system. For example, some programs exist prebooking. Before the individual has any significant interaction with the system, they are diverted to specialized care; post-booking, after charges have been filed, and post plea, which 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.

Jail Diversion Programs: What Started the Movement

America currently has the highest imprisonment rate in the world. In 2019 over 2 million individuals were incarcerated in the U.S., vastly increasing since the 1980s. 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 U.S. 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 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.

Considering that 56% of those individuals could be treated more effectively in a mental health setting, an estimated 85% of individuals in the justice system need substance abuse treatment. Additionally, there are much lower recidivism rates for diversion programs than for prison programs. It is easy to see that diversion programs are a win-win for everyone involved in these cases. Every individual who doesn’t re-offend saves themselves and their victim’s difficulties and saves the community a significant amount of financial support.


An essential factor in the argument for diversion programs is that they help all around. Individuals who need treatment are helped by being diverted to the appropriate treatment, and individuals in need of the justice system are supported because the prisons are less crowded. Resources can be focused where they were intended. The community is helped financially and holistically by increasing the chances that more individuals can return to society and contribute, decreasing recidivism.

One of the most longitudinal studies into jail diversion took place over five years and monitored appropriate individuals in the justice system that completed a diversion program. The study found that every year the group that completed the diversion program as opposed to those who didn’t, there was a marked difference in recidivism. For example, first-year statistics show 42% of non-completers were reincarcerated versus 14% of those that completed diversion. However, by the fifth year, it was 67% versus 37% overall, a vast difference in the lives of the individuals directly affected and the finances and resources of the community involved.

The study noted that more prolonged involvement in appropriate care equated to more gains overall and greater community success, an important note for the long-term success of diversion programs and communities. [1]

The center for prison reform has compiled a meta-analysis report of jail diversion program outcomes in America, which you can review here. Within this report are hundreds of statistics on the difference that diversion programs can make in the lives of individuals affected by mental health and substance use disorders and their families, communities, and the country as a whole.

Some standout information is cited here, but it is important to note that there were positive impacts in every state that implemented diversion programs of any type.

For example, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy published a cost-benefit analysis of different techniques used in Washington’s program, comparing drug offender sentencing alternatives, mental health courts, and many other jail diversion techniques in reducing recidivism. A few examples of the comparisons: cognitive-behavioral drug treatment in prison only showed a 6% reduction while drug treatment in the community offered a 12 percent reduction in recidivism; monitoring only community supervision showed a 0 percent reduction while treatment-oriented community supervision showed a 21 percent reduction in recidivism.

The same program implemented in prison versus a treatment center showed half the effectiveness in long-term reduction in criminal behavior.

A diversion program in Oklahoma saves taxpayers nearly $2 million per year. They have a goal to release 2,000 offenders from prison every year. They will accomplish this by treating the mental health condition, thus taking away the risk to the community and saving an annual $25 million.

New York estimates that it costs $60,000 per year to house each prisoner. Still, diversion programs, such as the Urban Mission Bridge Program in Watertown, New York, focus on helping drug and alcohol addiction, operate on a measly $41,000 grant, and save taxpayers $1,000,000 annually. In addition, Massachusetts offers Pre-arrest Jail Diversion Programs that pair an emergency service clinician with police to co-respond to calls with mental health elements.

Police then choose which offenders should be offered jail diversion. The state’s 2007 budget included $360,000 for five pre-arrest diversion initiatives and five police departments, which was cut 50% in 2009 yet still saved the state $1,300,000 in 2009 while helping countless individuals. 

Meanwhile, successful programs, such as the Miami-dade CMHP facilitated 4000 diversions in 2016 alone. In addition, the annual recidivism rate was an incredibly low 20 percent compared to the typical yearly recidivism rate of 75-percent. Imagine the impact that level of recidivism drop could have on the justice system nationally.

Obstacles and Potential Solutions

Diversion programs do not come without their share of obstacles. Programs that require the cooperation of so many agencies have struggles that single agency programs do not share.

Diversion programs require the cooperation of police, mental health, substance abuse treatment providers, prosecution offices, hospitals, judges, and to a certain extent, to work most effectively, state and federal legislatures. Anyone who has worked with multiple agencies before can attest to the added level of difficulty this can raise if all agencies are not on the same page with someone agreed upon as leading the program.

The most successful programs are affiliated with either the prosecutorial office or within the police departments themselves depending on whether the focus is a prebooking diversion or post-booking diversion.

The most critical aspect in making this successful level of teamwork is effective communication. The easiest way to ensure that quick and appropriate services are provided is by sharing important data somehow. For example, if necessary, information, such as behavioral observations from police, is placed into a database that other organizations can access or information that lets police know that the individual is already in mental health services and allows access to diversion more accurately and effectively.

One of the most effective jail diversion software platforms on the market is that provided by Julota. It allows for all systems to communicate needed information while maintaining privacy to comply with regulations and federal privacy laws. However, communication is an obstacle that any diversion program needs to consider carefully.

Another obstacle cited is the fees required for services. Even in cases where diversion has been proven beneficial, fees and fines that go along with it may make accessing these programs difficult.

In fact, in a survey completed by the New York Times about diversion programs in 37 states, two-thirds of lawyers cited fees as a barrier to client involvement. The ACLU estimates that a defendant in diversion can easily pay between $5000-$6000 for a minor drug charge, leading to a lack of equality in the justice system between poor defendants and those that are more well off.

Adjusting funding levels to compensate for income inequalities to allow equal access to successful diversion programs is a necessary fix to improve the ability for all to utilize these programs and for all communities to benefit from the improvements seen by those with access to treatment.[2] Communities looking to begin diversion programs will need to look to grants and creative funding opportunities to ensure the most success in the community for all.

It is easy to look at the statistics and see that diversion programs benefit everyone involved in serving a community. Diversion programs offer the best chance of success for individuals struggling with mental health and/or substance abuse disorders. It provides short and long term lower recidivism rates than traditional criminal models, financially benefits the community, and takes some of the strain off of the justice system.

They do have some obstacles and problems to overcome to get started, but they are worth the hassle; diversion programs are a win-win for everyone