Court diversion programs are a way to keep people out of prison, which is crucial in our age of mass incarceration. These programs usually target groups of people such as veterans acting out due to service-related issues or people whose crimes were motivated by addiction.
In general, eligible offenders agree to plead guilty and enter a court-ordered program to help them address their addiction, PTSD or other specific issues. Successful completion typically results in the charges being dropped altogether.
Many jurisdictions offer such programs for first-time and low-level offenders with an obvious life problem that contributed to their crime. The expansion of programs like Drug Court, Veterans Court and Mental Health Court have helped countless people turn their lives around instead of spending them behind bars.
These programs, along with decriminalization, changes in policing, and reform-minded prosecutors, have helped reduce the U.S. incarceration rate from 1,000 incarcerated people per 100,000 adults to only 830.
The First Step Act was passed last year. As we discussed at the time, it was a bipartisan effort and will reduce some burdensome and unjust sentences in the federal system. Yet state and local reform is even more necessary, because the vast majority of American prisoners are in jails and state prisons.
The next step in criminal justice reform might be diversion in some cases of violence
It makes some people nervous to discuss giving violent offenders a way to avoid long prison sentences. Yes, some people in this category have done very bad things — but the phrase “violent crime” covers a huge amount of territory. Not all those accused of violent crimes are a threat to the community, and some may be prime candidates for diversion programs.
For example, someone charged with simple assault might have merely made a threatening gesture that frightened someone but did not actually injure them.
People charged with misdemeanor domestic violence might be excellent candidates for diversion programs involving court-supervised conflict resolution and anger management training.
In some cases, even those accused of felony-level violence might be brought back to society through diversion programs. For example, they may have committed their offense due to a treatable mental illness and could return to society with treatment.
Diversion programs are effective at helping people turn aside from the criminal justice system and get their lives back together. They are also proven to reduce recidivism. Defendants at the Brooklyn Mental Health Court, for example, are 29 percent less likely to re-offend than their peers. Long prison terms make it even more difficult for people to reenter society.
It’s time to consider expanding diversion programs to people accused of at least some violent offenses. What do you think?