Diversion Programs: Creating Exit Ramps from the Criminal Legal System

“Diversion” is a broad term that refers to the many forms of exit ramps that can divert people from the criminal legal system. Instead of punitive punishment, diversion targets the underlying problems that may have contributed to the criminal behavior, such as poverty, substance use, mental health challenges, and more.  

Diversion programs can significantly decrease recidivism rates, reducing the likelihood that participants will reoffend. A recent study of Texas diversion programs found that defendants without a prior felony conviction who participated had an immediate and dramatic reduction in subsequent offending: the total number of future convictions fell by 75 percent over a 10-year follow-up period, compared to similar defendants who did not receive diversion.

In addition to these benefits, diversion programs can also save states money. Research shows that for every dollar invested in drug treatment, $12 is saved through the reduction of future crime and health care expenses. By addressing the root causes of this crime through community-based treatment, our state can save money while reducing the strain on the criminal legal system.

Multiple Intervention Points 

There are many different points at which a case can be diverted from the criminal legal system, and diversion programs can exist at each of these early stages. 

  • Pre–police encounter diversion: Instead of sending police to respond to certain 911 calls, pre-police diversion programs, such as crisis hotlines, use civilian responders to address community problems, eliminating a response from law enforcement.
  • Pre-arrest diversion: Designed to reduce the number of people arrested and placed in jail by giving law enforcement discretion to divert people for low-level misdemeanors or nonviolent criminalized behaviors. These programs connect people to support and services that address underlying needs. These programs are best for people who need access to substance use or mental health treatment.
  • Pre-charge diversion: Also referred to as prosecutor-led interventions, these programs allow prosecutors to reduce incarceration by using their discretion to divert people away from the criminal legal system. These programs can be run by courts, law enforcement agencies, community-based organizations and nonprofits, or prosecutor’s offices themselves.
  • Pretrial diversion: If someone has already been charged with a crime, pretrial diversion programs allow people to go through programs, like problem-solving courts, that have completion requirements and sometimes require them to enter a plea. At this stage, the judge may also offer deferred adjudication, which allows the person to complete their “sentence” in their community rather than behind bars.

Current Missouri Law and Proposed Legislation

Currently in Missouri, prosecutors have discretion for diversion in many cases, meaning that they can opt to not utilize these programs, or may show bias in who is offered diversion and who is not. There have been multiple pieces of legislation filed this year that would establish a statewide DWI diversion program, ensuring that everyone who meets the criteria for program enrollment is able to participate, not just those cases selected by a prosecutor. 

One piece of legislation that has been heard and passed out of committee is SB 74, sponsored by Sen. Curtis Trent. SB 74 would create a DWI diversion program, giving judges the authority to divert criminal DWI cases to a diversion program if the defendant meets certain criteria, including having no previous intoxicated-related traffic offenses. Program requirements include the installation of a breathalyzer in the participant’s vehicle for a minimum of one year.

In 2019, arrest data shows that over 14,000 individuals were arrested for suspicion of drunk driving in Missouri. A criminal record carries with it numerous collateral consequences that can make it difficult for an individual to obtain employment, access educational opportunities, and secure safe and stable housing. This will lead to improved public safety in Missouri communities.

Diversion programs offer an alternative to mass incarceration through addressing the root causes of crime, providing community based services, and reducing the likelihood that an individual will have continued contact with the criminal legal system. By supporting legislation like SB 74, we can ensure that access for these programs is not dictated by the whims of prosecutors, but is instead protected by Missouri statute.

Additional Resources

Building exits off the highway to mass incarceration: Diversion programs explained | Prison Policy Initiative

Diversion.pdf (umich.edu)

Diversion Programs, Explained | Vera Institute

1 Response
  1. I’ve had experience working with women who was allowed to be on keyway Center for Diversion and Reentry. And results have been positive and they are still in the community doing great.

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