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July 20, 2021

"Building exits off the highway to mass incarceration: Diversion programs explained"

The title of this post is the title of this great new report authored by Leah Wang and Katie Rose Quandt for the Prison Policy Initiative. I recommend the report in full, and here is how it gets started:

Our nation’s mass incarceration crisis has led to far too many people locked up in jails and prisons.  As public outrage grows regarding the unfairness of the criminal justice system, counties and municipalities are adopting a wide range of programs that divert people out of the system before they can be incarcerated, pitching these as solutions to reduce the number of people in confinement.  But these programs are not all created equal, and the design and implementation of diversion can be wildly different in its impact on justice-involved people.

We envision the criminal justice system as a highway on which people are heading toward the possibility of incarceration; depending on the state or county, this highway may have exit ramps in the form of diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration.  Diversion is a broad term referring to any means of exiting the criminal justice system without a criminal conviction, while an alternative to incarceration can be offered to someone who has been convicted.

The further someone travels down the highway, the more collateral consequences they will experience: a police encounter that may turn dangerous; the trauma of being booked; their mugshot published on the internet; massive amounts of time spent away from work and family for jail time or court appearances; the financial burden of bail and court costs; and a criminal record that generates numerous other challenges like exclusion from the workforce, ineligibility for public benefits, disenfranchisement, and denial of the right to serve on a jury.

The earlier someone can take an exit ramp, the more devastating impacts they can avoid — and the more we can shrink the massive footprint of the criminal justice system.  This report provides a general overview of diversion and alternative-to-incarceration programs, and key differences in how they might alleviate (or complicate) someone’s experience going through the system.

In an ideal world, a community would implement all or almost all of these programs, to help divert people at every stage.  But when resources — financial or political — are limited, it is important that policymakers make choices that will have the largest impact.  While all diversions are better than incarceration, the most powerful are the earliest interventions (which we’re calling “Exit 1”) that prevent encounters with police and the criminal justice system in the first place.

July 20, 2021 at 02:35 PM | Permalink

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