What role does human service practice play in the pretrial diversion setting specifically?
The provision of "humane services" to suspects arrested in connection with a crime is essential for, as the phrase suggests, the humane treatment of prisoners whose mental health and/or legal infractions might not warrant incarceration in a prison. The theory behind such practice is sound. With systemic overcrowding of American prisons a serious issue, and with the problem of recidivism continuing, practices that divert certain categories of offenders away from prison, and even away from the criminal justice system as a whole, can be meritorious. The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health stated in one study regarding pretrial humane services, the link to which is provided below:
"Providing effective services at this early stage of involvement with the criminal justice system can result in heightened motivation to seek treatment and decreased recidivism."
Most of the literature on pretrial diversion involves defendants with records of mental health problems and/or histories of drug abuse, a category of crime the legitimacy of which continues to come into question among many social workers and legal representatives. With prison overcrowding a problem, and the cost of imprisoning each inmate ranging from $30,000 to $60,000 per year, and with serious questions remaining regarding the appropriateness of housing nonviolent criminals in prisons designed more for violent prisoners, the question of pretrial diversions is more important than ever. The problem, however, lies in the lack of quantifiable data pointing to the success of such programs. A study conducted under contract to the U.S. Department of Justice on pretrial diversion programs noted the following on this point:
There still are unanswered questions about pretrial diversion programs and their overall effect on offenders and the criminal justice system. Despite the fact that they aim to reduce offenders’ criminal behavior, relatively few of these programs collect data on offenders’ rates of recidivism."
Similarly, in his September 2000 testimony before the U.S. Congress, Dr. Bernard Arons, director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated:
"Although jail diversion programs appear to have widespread support, few outcome studies have systematically examined the effectiveness of diversion programs using client outcome data."
Humane services play an important role in screening criminal defendants prior to trial for alternatives to costly trials and, if found guilty, imprisonment. Certain convicted criminals simply do not belong in prison, where they are subject to cruel and unusual punishment at the hands of predatory inmates and, occasionally, abusive corrections personnel. Those with verified histories of mental illness, for example, may, if nonviolent, be better served, and society as a whole may be better served, by alternatives to criminal trials and incarceration in jail or prison. How well such programs work, however, is uncertain.