Diversion programs and incarceration alternatives

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.
  • Reimagining juvenile justice: Many diversion programs are designed for individuals under age 18, for whom legal structures may allow more flexibility than for adults. Like adult programs, juvenile diversion initiatives take many forms and are of varying intensities. Approaches may include restorative justice approaches, community service, treatment, skill-building programs, youth courts, and more. 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.
Target Population
At-risk individuals
Key Stakeholders
Mayor or County Executive's Office, Local Judges, Human Services Department, Sheriff/Police Chief's Office, Program Evaluation Team

What evidence supports this strategy?

Strong

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.

How do diversion programs and incarceration alternatives impact economic mobility?

  • Moving away from incarceration: Court-based diversion programs can enable residents to remain in their communities instead of being incarcerated and can reduce rates of recidivism. Research shows that avoiding incarceration and/or re-incarceration significantly increases the likelihood that participants will earn a steady income, complete education or workforce training programs, and secure high-quality employment
  • Intergenerational impacts: Parents of children under 18 make up half of the incarcerated population. Research shows that incarcerating parents can significantly reduce a child's likelihood of upward mobility, with negative effects on the child's academic outcomes and on family income.

Best practices in implementation

  • 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.

Evidence-based examples

Seeks to advance behavior change among incarcerated individuals and those on probation
Stable and healthy families Stable high-quality employment
Strong
Incarceration alternative requiring supervision, drug treatment and testing, and sanctions for drug offenders
Stable and healthy families Supportive neighborhoods
Strong
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
Proven
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
Proven
Diverts juvenile offenders from the formal justice system, with focus on reducing recidivism and further problem behavior
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation Stable and healthy families
Strong
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
Proven
Alternative justice approach using mediation, peacemaking circles, and family group conferences
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation Supportive neighborhoods
Strong