« Ending Mass Criminalization

Policy 4: Diversion Programs

Historically, incarceration has been used as a one-size-fits-all solution for every person who is arrested by the police. This over-reliance on incarceration has meant that millions of people have had critical underlying issues, such as addiction or mental health concerns, go unaddressed. Many of these people are accused of low-level offenses and are stuck in a cycle of recidivism, repeatedly arrested and incarcerated as their issues worsen.


Diversion programs are one sensible and compassionate solution to this problem. Police diversion programs allow law enforcement to use discretion to identify and divert people who meet certain criteria, often before they are even booked in the system. These programs give cities the opportunity to save on prosecution and incarceration costs, lower recidivism, and improve the lives of residents. They also give police the chance to help those in need of services rather than rely on harsh punishments. By choosing a pragmatic and compassionate approach over criminalization, cities can begin to see a decline in crime rates and increased community health.

Police diversion makes sense where law enforcement is being used to address issues that stem from unmet public health or economic opportunity needs. Ultimately, a healthy society should not rely on the police to play this function. But if police are called to respond to a situation that is technically a law violation, but stems from unmet service needs, those needs should be met through community-based diversion rather than through criminalization, which is more expensive and more destructive.

In Practice

In Seattle, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program (LEAD) has reduced recidivism by 34-58% and assisted hundreds of people in need of help, providing program participants everything from housing and addiction treatment to yoga and art supplies in order to prevent recidivism. Similarly, in Brooklyn, the Center for Court Innovation’s Red Hook Community Justice Center has an on-site clinic as well as programs for youth participants. The Center has reduced the use of jail in misdemeanor cases by 50%.

Best Practices:

Local legislators can support programs that divert people from the criminal justice system to more sensible and human alternatives by allocating funds to support diversion programs.

  • Ideally, local legislators should not adopt legislation around this issue, because any written rules limit the ability for case-by-case discretion. Instead, legislators can be helpful by funding and/or periodically evaluating diversion programs.
  • Instead of enacting legislation, those wishing to implement such a program should discuss and engage stakeholders such as the police chief, sheriff, district attorney, county and city councils, mayor, lead public defender, neighborhood public safety groups, harm reduction based social service providers, and others. A Memorandum of Understanding setting out guidelines and rules for the diversion program can then be created and agreed to by the relevant stakeholders.
  • Community services could include mental health, addiction services, trauma-focused psychotherapy, housing and job assistance, healthcare, and other important services. Services should be provided in a harm reduction (not an abstinence-based or zero tolerance) paradigm.
  • Data is important. Diversion programs must measure and record information at every step of the process to accurately assess the program’s success.
  • Evaluations should include recidivism, individual health outcomes, and specific indicators of community health.
  • Community organizations and service professionals can partner with the city to provide relevant services and assist with the programmatic needs of the diversion program.
  • Police departments need to clearly state and train officers on operation protocols, including clarity around decision-making power. These protocols should be structured and easily reviewable. Furthermore, monitoring and oversight, preferably done by an independent department or organization, are necessary when providing police this type of discretion.
  • Money saved through enacting diversion programs should be reinvested in community based initiatives that reduce crime, such as mental and other health services, education, housing services, and job assistance.