A breakdown of alternatives to time behind bars

Diversion programs offer an alternative to prison, but they're not as easy an answer as we think, a new analysis for The Prison Policy Initiative

We go to the Prison Policy Initiative for this week’s report, “Building exits off the highway to mass incarceration: Diversion programs explained,” by Leah Wang and Katie Rose Quandt.

Community-based services

  • Pre-police encounters.

  • Refers to support systems within a community that tackle issues increasing the likelihood of a police encounter like mental health issues, substance abuse disorders, homelessness, poverty, domestic violence, unemployment.

  • Can be civilian crisis response systems, voluntary substance abuse treatment, drop-in community centers, and anti-poverty initiatives

Police-led interventions

  • Pre-arrest, avoids consequences of arrest and bookings.

  • Police are instructed not to arrest in certain situations like when someone with a substance abuse disorder violates a drug law.

  • Lighter sanctions are imposed, like a warning or referral to a service provider.

  • This strategy requires the cooperation of the police so it is not always effective and can sometimes increase police funding by the city.

Prosecutor-led interventions

  • Successfully, this will result in no charges.

  • These programs are very common but vary based on jurisdiction.

  • Can relieve burden on the court system, correctional facilities, probation offices and prevent individuals from having a criminal record.

  • Success here depends on cooperation of prosecutors and some programs have concerning practices.

Judge-led interventions

  • Problem-serving courts are intended to help people with substance abuse disorders or mental health issues and link them to treatment.

  • This is the last exit that can help people avoid a criminal conviction and some evidence points to reduced recidivism or re-arrest among participants.

  • This program still relies on incarceration as a punishment if people don’t comply and does not address the systemic issues that lead people to be arrested in the first place.

Alternatives to incarceration

  • These options allow people to avoid or shorten a sentence behind bars, but individuals still end up with a criminal record.

  • This exit can prevent incarceration-related trauma, save taxpayer money, and lessens the chance of re-incarceration.

  • Incarceration replacements can be expensive for participants and common offense-based exclusions defeat the purpose of creating alternatives.

Prison Policy Initiative emphasizes that the most effective diversion programs keep people away from the criminal justice system as early as possible and helps individuals avoid the consequences that come with a criminal record. Programs should be created based on public health research and harm reduction principles. There is no one size fits all and no single strategy can address every need or avoid every police encounter.

Read the whole analysis here.


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