Strategy overview

  • Creating alternatives to jail and prison: Criminal justice diversion programs and incarceration alternatives allow individuals to avoid jail or prison at various points in their interactions with the criminal justice system, from the moment of engagement with police through sentencing. These approaches intend to reduce recidivism and generate major cost savings by enabling residents to remain in their communities while providing various forms of accountability, engagement, and support services.
  • Serving a broad population: Diversion programs can be tailored to a wide range of residents. Many initiatives focus on juvenile diversion, those with a drug or alcohol addiction, or primary care-givers. Generally, eligibility for diversion is restricted to those charged with a non-violent crime.
  • Providing off-ramps before trial: Many diversions from incarceration occur before an individual faces trial. During initial engagement with police, a diversion effort may involve partnering with a mental health clinic to provide crisis de-escalation and treatment rather than booking; at the moment of charging, a diversion program led by courts or prosecutors may include education, job training, and/or restorative justice approaches.
  • Connecting individuals to services instead of incarceration: After charges have been filed, some criminal justice systems provide additional pathways away from incarceration. Oftentimes, these are facilitated by alternative court systems or sentencing programs, such as drug courts, problem-solving courts, or day reporting. Instead of traditional trials and sentencing, these approaches (which often require a guilty plea) focus on connecting participants to services like treatment for addiction, case management, and job training.
  • Meeting the needs of youth: Many diversion programs are intended for minors, for whom legal structures may allow more flexibility than for adults. Like adult programs, juvenile diversion programs vary in their form and philosophy. Broadly, they include police-led programs, like caution and warning initiatives; service coordination programs focused on case management and wrap-around services; counseling or skill-building programs, like those providing mentoring or individual mental health counseling; and restorative justice programs, which offer victim-offender mediation, family group conferences, and similar services. These programs typically require a high degree of engagement with partners outside of the criminal justice system, such as families, schools, community groups, and social services agencies.

While court-based diversion programs and incarceration alternatives have been rigorously evaluated, results have varied significantly. Multiple comprehensive meta-analyses found limited, but promising evidence of effectiveness when evaluated by robust methods such as randomized control trials.

  • A 2016 meta-analysis of 99 studies of juvenile restorative justice programs found that the programs showed a moderate reduction in future delinquent behavior relative to traditional juvenile court processing. However, results were smaller across randomized control trial studies.

  • Synthesized research on restorative justice practices found that results are promising for recidivism for offenders and outcomes for victims such as satisfaction.

  • Meta-analyses examining the effect of adult drug courts found that program participants were less likely to recidivate compared to offenders who did not participate.

  • Meta-analyses evaluating the impact of juvenile diversion programs produced mixed results, with some evidence that diversion could reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

  • A 2018 quasi-experimental study providing the first causal estimate on adult diversion found that the programs cut recidivism in half over 10 years and improved employment rates by 53 percent, with effects persisting after 20 years.

Before making investments in this strategy, city and county leaders should ensure it addresses local needs.

The Urban Institute and Mathematica have developed indicator frameworks to help local leaders assess conditions related to upward mobility, identify barriers, and guide investments to address these challenges. These indicator frameworks can serve as a starting point for self-assessment, not as a comprehensive evaluation, and should be complemented by other forms of local knowledge.

The Urban Institute's Upward Mobility Framework identifies a set of key local conditions that shape communities’ ability to advance upward mobility and racial equity. Local leaders can use the Upward Mobility Framework to better understand the factors that improve upward mobility and prioritize areas of focus. Data reports for cities and counties can be created here.

Several indicators in the Upward Mobility Framework may be improved with investments in high-quality programs. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

  • Safety from trauma: The number of deaths due to injury per 100,000 people. These data are available from the National Center for Health Statistics’ Mortality File and the CDC’s WONDER database.

  • Safety from crime: Reported property crimes per 100,000 people and reported violent crimes per 100,000 people. These data are available from the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

  • Just policing: Number of juveniles arrested per 100,000. High rates of juvenile arrests provide a strong indicator of overall system involvement and over-policing. These data are available from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Crime Data Explorer.

Mathematica's Education-to-Workforce (E-W) Indicator Framework helps local leaders identify the data that matter most in helping students and young adults succeed. Local leaders can use the E-W framework to better understand education and workforce conditions in their communities and to identify strategies that can improve outcomes in these areas.

Several indicators in the E-W Framework may be improved with investments in high-quality programs. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

  • Childhood experiences: Percentage of individuals with fewer than three ACEs.
  • Equitable discipline practices: Differences in the rates at which students from key demographic subgroups ever experience different forms of school discipline (office referrals, suspensions, expulsions, restraint, and exclusion) relative to those students’ representation in their school population as a whole.
  • Neighborhood juvenile arrests: Rate of juvenile arrests by city or county (number of arrests per 100,000 residents).

  • Cultivate a broad coalition: Diversion programs typically require a range of partners, including the courts, law enforcement agencies, public health departments, social service providers, and community-based organizations. These stakeholders often each play a leading role at different points in program delivery. A robust, vocal coalition can enable stronger diversion programming and help build broader support for alternatives to incarceration, which often faces ideological opposition from some policymakers and/or residents
  • Focus programming on specific transition points: Unlike many evidence-based initiatives, diversions from incarceration are rarely comprehensive. Instead, programs with a strong track record of impact are typically available only at certain moments in the criminal justice process, such as pre-arrest, pre-charging, or pre-sentencing. While there may be some overlap — especially in partners delivering the model — high-impact programs are typically designed and administered independently.
  • Provide access to support services: Diversion away from incarceration should provide concrete opportunities for participants to address their most pressing needs, like stable income or addiction treatment. It is therefore crucial to build programs around the provision of support services that can address those needs. This may include employment-focused programming such as workforce training, career coaching, and job placement, or behavioral health services like case management, cognitive behavioral therapy, and substance abuse treatment.
  • Invest in robust outcome tracking, communicate successes: Diversion programs are a relatively nascent evidence-based practice; oftentimes, residents are not familiar with the significant impact of effective initiatives. Therefore, it is especially crucial in this realm to invest in strong program evaluation and outcome tracking capacity in multiple areas, including public safety, cost savings, and program effectiveness (i.e. recidivism rates, stable employment, etc.). This information can be used externally to boost public support, funding, and partner engagement. Such data analysis can also be used internally to refine and strengthen programming and create a culture of continuous improvement.
  • Standardize the screening and assessment process: Diversion programs are typically designed for individuals with a specific risk and needs profile. To ensure individuals are matched with the appropriate services, diversion program staff (e.g., intake officers, case managers) should conduct screenings and assessments using standardized and evidence-based tools. By using standardized screening and assessment tools, programs can also reduce the risk of discrimination in admission to the program (e.g., diverting white individuals at a higher rate than individuals of color due to bias).

Evidence-based examples

Seeks to advance behavior change among incarcerated individuals and those on probation
Stable and healthy families High-quality employment
Incarceration alternative requiring supervision, drug treatment and testing, and sanctions for drug offenders
Stable and healthy families Supportive neighborhoods
Incarceration alternative including substance abuse testing, judicial monitoring, and support services to parents of children in the child welfare system
Stable and healthy families Supportive neighborhoods
Clinic- or school-based short-term intervention program for youth who have been referred by juvenile justice, mental health, school, or child welfare systems
Stable and healthy families
Intensive intervention for serious juvenile offenders in which a small team of therapists work with youth offenders and their families regularly
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation Stable and healthy families
An intervention for girls of middle school and high school age who demonstrate risk factors for juvenile justice system involvement.
Stable and healthy families High school graduation
Pre-Arraignment Representation and Review provides earlier legal representation to individuals arrested on criminal charges.
Stable and healthy families Supportive neighborhoods
Pretrial supervised release programs serve as a legal alternative to cash bail.
Supportive neighborhoods
Alternative justice approach using mediation, peacemaking circles, and family group conferences
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation Supportive neighborhoods

Evidence varies across specific models

Text message reminder program to improve appearance rates at court hearings.
Supportive neighborhoods