What are jail diversion programs?

Quick Answer
Jail diversion programs provide an alternative means of sentencing and rehabilitating nonviolent drug and alcohol offenders and offenders with mental health issues in order to avoid unnecessary and unproductive jail or prison time.
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According to several sources, the United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. The country contains 5 percent of the world's population, yet over 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Of those US prisoners, over 20 percent had significant mental health issues and over 60 percent had substance use disorder, with the majority having been incarcerated on nonviolent drug offences. In 2005, the Bureau of Justice Statistics issued a report stating that more than one-half of all inmates in prisons and jails across the United States had a mental illness.

In large correctional facilities such as the Los Angeles County Jail and the Rikers Island complex in New York City, the population of inmates with mental illness is greater than the number of persons being treated for mental illness in any hospital in the United States. As a result of the modern trend of deinstitutionalization, correctional facilities have become the nation’s largest providers of mental health treatment.

In response to this growing problem, many communities have turned to jail diversion programs to better meet the rehabilitation needs of offenders with mental illness and to alleviate some of the strain that housing such inmates places on the criminal justice system. Jail diversion programs are designed to identify and redirect offenders with serious mental health problems and substance abuse problems from jail or prison and toward various community-based treatment and recovery centers. In doing so, these programs allow mentally ill offenders to receive the type of rehabilitative support they need to cope with their illness and to begin to recover instead of being incarcerated, which often only exacerbates their condition.

Along with improved access to quality health care, jail diversion programs are beneficial to offenders with mental illnesses in many other ways. Such programs frequently allow offenders to maintain their employment, which, in turn, provides them with a means of supporting their families and continuing to be productive members of society. In many cases, upon completion of treatment, offenders in jail diversion programs also become eligible to have the charges against them expunged from their records.

Jail diversion programs also are advantageous for the communities in which they operate. In many correctional facilities, the cost of housing a single inmate is often around $100 per day. In communities with active jail diversion programs, which can effectively reduce or eliminate jail time for thousands of offenders, the economic savings for taxpayers is considerable.

Types of Jail Diversion Programs

Three common types of jail diversion programs are in practice.

Prebooking diversion takes place before a person is booked into jail and before any charges are filed. The strategies employed within these diversion programs usually focus on the initial contact between an offender and law enforcement officers. As such, prebooking diversion programs require police officers to be specially trained to recognize the indicators of a potential mental illness or substance abuse problem and to make the appropriate judgment as to how an offender should be handled on-scene.

Many of these programs involve collaboration between police and local mental health and substance abuse facilities. This collaboration may come in the form of a team of specifically trained mental health professionals who respond with police to calls that are likely to involve mental illness or substance abuse. In other cases, police officers may simply choose to transport a mentally ill offender directly to a mental health facility instead of to the police station or jail.

The second and more widely utilized type of jail diversion program is postbooking diversion. Postbooking diversion occurs after a person is arrested and formally charged with a crime. Once charged, the offender is screened for mental health and substance abuse problems. If the offender is deemed to be qualified for diversion, those in charge of the diversion program work with prosecutors and court officials to negotiate a reduction in or elimination of jail time for the offender in favor of mental health treatment.

The third type of jail diversion program that is becoming increasingly popular is geared specifically toward nonviolent drug offenders. Drug court was first implemented in 1989 in Miami-Dade County, Florida, by a group of law professionals who determined another solution to the problems of repeat offenders was needed. They combined drug treatment with judicial supervision to effect changes in convicted individuals' lifestyle and behavior. Within ten years of the first drug court, almost 500 additional drug courts had been in operation throughout the United States. As of June 2014, over 3,400 drug courts were operating in the country.

Some criminal justice systems also have separate mental health courts where offenders diagnosed with mental illnesses and charged with nonviolent crimes are tried. In these courts, convicted offenders receive sentences that are specifically designed to allow them to avoid jail or prison time by participating in a voluntary treatment program.


Studies have shown that jail diversion programs for offenders with mental illnesses or substance abuse problems have been successful in terms of their ability to rehabilitate offenders and reduce or prevent instances of recidivism following release. According to the National Institute of Justice, one study conducted in the Kansas City, Missouri, drug courts indicated that the felony rearrest rate decreased from 40 percent prior to individuals attending drug court to 12 percent after being enrolled in drug court. In Pensacola, Florida, the felony rearrest rate decreased from 50 percent to 35 percent.

Similarly, other studies have shown that offenders who participated in a jail diversion program experienced fewer arrests and fewer days incarcerated or hospitalized after they completed the program than they did in the year prior to their initial arrest. These results show that jail diversion programs do achieve their intended goals of reducing crime among persons with mental illnesses while keeping them out of correctional facilities.

One can, therefore, conclude that jail diversion programs are effective in dealing with mental illness, substance abuse, and crime for all parties involved. Offenders themselves receive the rehabilitation and support they need while avoiding the difficulties associated with serving jail or prison time. Criminal justice systems benefit from the reduction in the number of offenders entering already overcrowded correctional facilities. Communities are, in turn, relieved of some of the economic burdens of paying to support additional inmates. From every perspective, jail diversion programs are effective and worthwhile alternatives to the traditional methods of criminal justice in the United States.


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