Issues / Diversion and Alternatives to Incarceration

Prosecutors serve as gatekeepers to the criminal justice system — they often decide who goes into the system, and who gets a second chance. They have a responsibility to use limited public resources wisely with the goals of promoting public safety and reducing harm.

Research has shown that public safety and community well-being are often best served by keeping people who commit low-level offenses out of the criminal justice system and ensuring that deep involvement with the criminal justice system is reserved for the most serious cases. Diversion and alternatives to incarceration provide ways for individuals who have broken the law to be held accountable without disrupting their ability to lead productive lives and contribute to their community.

Information and Resources

Diversion Strategies, Programs and Principles – A National Scan

This FJP compendium offers guiding principles for implementing alternatives to incarceration and developing diversion programs. The brief lists a sampling of programs currently in use across the country. When tailored to a jurisdiction’s unique needs, these programs can reduce criminal justice costs, limit unnecessary individual contacts with the justice system, and reduce the potentially harmful long-term consequences of such contacts, while also enhancing public safety.

Improving Justice System Responses to Individuals with Mental Illness

People with mental illness are significantly over-represented in the justice system. In response, many law enforcement leaders and justice system stakeholders are working collaboratively with public health officials to develop cross-system solutions. This FJP “Issues at a Glance” brief highlights key principles and important considerations for improving responses to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, as well as strengthening mental health diversion programs and reentry initiatives.

There are numerous opportunities for prosecutors to reduce the number of individuals with mental illness in the criminal justice system. This companion FJP “Issues at a Glance” brief on mental health offers implementation strategies, as well as examples and practices from around the nation, that model public health responses and cross-system interventions that can avoid criminalizing mental illness.

“We’ve all struggled in every city and throughout the county with homelessness, mental health and substance abuse disease. These are difficult, complex situations that didn’t happen overnight and won’t be solved overnight. But they will be solved if we work together.”

— San Joaquin County (CA) District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar

LEAD Diversion — Evaluation Summary

This document reviews findings from four separate evaluations of the LEAD diversion program, reporting recidivism outcomes, criminal justice costs, housing and employment outcomes, and participant perception.

Speaking Out

“Baltimore Prosecutor Makes ‘Bold and Groundbreaking’ Decision Regarding Marijuana Arrests”

Using limited resources to prosecute marijuana use promotes racial disparities, erodes trust in the justice system, and does nothing to advance public safety. In a Baltimore Sun op-ed, FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky and former Albany, NY Police Chief Brendan Cox discuss efforts by Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to repair the damage done by decades of the “war on drugs” by rejecting the criminalization of marijuana use.

“Criminalization of people who use drugs, especially those who use marijuana, has done little more than plunge our most vulnerable communities into intergenerational cycles of poverty, trauma, incarceration and disenfranchisement.”

“Prosecutors Can Take the Lead in Tackling Mental Illness the Right Way”

Judge Steven Leifman of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court of Florida and FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky discuss in a Miami Herald op ed how DAs can forge more effective cross-system public health responses that avoid criminalizing individuals struggling with mental illness.

“We know that excessively incarcerating people with mental illness is not making our communities safer. It’s making them sicker — at an enormous human and financial cost. It’s time for prosecutors to step up and lead the national movement for more compassionate and effective mental-health and criminal-justice systems.”

District Attorney Discusses L.E.A.D: Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion”

Bernalillo County (Albuquerque, NM) District Attorney Raúl Torrez describes his plan to begin a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program that will save money, reduce recidivism, and help keep low-risk individuals out of the criminal justice system. Watch the video here.

“Prosecutive Winds of Change”

King County (Seattle, WA) Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg and FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky underscore the important role of prosecutors in promoting a sensible and fair justice system and describe how newly elected local prosecutors are pushing the criminal justice system away from “tough on crime” attitudes and toward new prevention-oriented thinking. Read more here.

Examples of Innovation

Florida Juvenile Citation Program

4th Judicial Circuit (Jacksonville, FL) State Attorney Melissa Nelson launched a new juvenile citation program, ensuring more youth will participate in Teen Court, where youth will be held accountable with minimal criminal justice system involvement and receive access to appropriate services. Read more here.

New Policy to Divert Marijuana Possession Cases from the Criminal Justice System in Harris County

Harris County (Houston, TX) District Attorney Kim Ogg implemented a new expansive marijuana pre-arrest diversion program. Read more here.

The King County (WA) 180 Program

The 180 Program is a community partnership and pre-filing diversion program that seeks to keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system. Read more here.

Manhattan DA Press Release Ending Criminal Prosecution of Low-Level Subway Offenses

Manhattan NY District Attorney Cy Vance announced his office will no longer criminally prosecute low-level subway misdemeanors unless there is a compelling public safety rationale to do so. Read more here.