Diversion programs for youth offenders are blooming within area jurisdictions and are having a positive impact on the criminal justice system and on society, some officials and other experts said.
“Diversion as an alternative to detention is a concept that has been around for 40 years, and it came about as the result of evidence showing that a young person’s involvement in the juvenile justice system makes things worse,” said Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a San Francisco-based nonpartisan nonprofit, whose aim is to reduce the reliance on incarceration.
Most diversion programs focus on first-time offenders who have committed misdemeanor crimes. The alternative approach helps them avoid the stigmatization that a criminal conviction would bring, advocates say.
“They were developed to give young people a second chance in the belief that though people may mess up once, they may not mess up gain,” said Andrew Fois, deputy attorney general for the District of Columbia. “It prevents people from becoming chronic recidivists by giving them an incentive to leave the destructive path they may be on and get back on a law-abiding path.”
According to a study by the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies (NAPSA), most diversion screening criteria included prior criminal history, type of charge, substance abuse and mental health history, victim approval, the amount of restitution and arresting officer approval. Standard conditions of diversion participation include drug testing, restitution, community service and counseling.
In Washington, D.C., diversion programs are open to any youth under 18.
There are three levels geared to different offense categories. At the first stage, if police seize a young person for marijuana possession, they can choose to withhold charges and refer that person to the D. C. Superior Court Social Services Department, where they would be enrolled in Youth Court, a peer-to-peer remediation process. The second stage offers prosecutors the option of sending the offender to Youth Court. At the third stage, the judge and prosecutors can vacate charges if certain conditions are met, officials said.
Fois said a lack of resources limits the options they can offer.
“It would be nicer if we had more programs that could be more tailored to the person and the crime,” he said.
For example, in nearby Prince George’s County in Maryland, the State’s Attorney’s Office offers a broader menu of options.
According to the office’s spokesman John Erzen, their diversion programs include a partnership with the University of Maryland, which targets underage drinkers; an anger management program; a drug diversion program for those arrested with fewer than 10 grams of marijuana; a bad check restitution program; pre-trial mediation; theft diversion for petty crimes such as shoplifting; and community service.
Erzen said the benefits of these programs are many.
“This ensures [offenders] are held accountable and that they get the help they need,” he said. “And the reality is there is a cost-savings, as well, because [the county] is not paying to have the trial and house this person in jail.”
As in Prince George’s County and the District, Baltimore’s diversion programs involve several government agencies and other entities.
“It certainly is a holistic approach,” said Baltimore State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein.
While the city’s programs share the goals of providing counseling and treatment where needed and preventing stigmatization, they also reflect a strategic approach to fighting crime, he said.
Misdemeanor crimes have clogged up the court’s dockets—10 percent of all circuit court cases, for example, are for simple marijuana possession—limiting courtroom availability for the prosecution of violent crimes.
“As state’s attorney my primary focus is to prosecute repeat violent offenders who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of violence in the city,” Bernstein said in an interview. “We try to be strategic about directing our limited resources to investigating and prosecuting those crimes.”
Baltimore offers diversion programs for first-time offenders charged with simple possession of marijuana—a one-day program, including a lecture by a drug counselor and community service—and for those charged with possession of small amounts of drugs such as cocaine and heroin. That program runs 90 days and includes drug treatment.
Bernstein said he was particularly proud of their diversion program for teen girls and women charged with prostitution and solicitation.
Such offenders “are likely not doing this by choice,” he said. “Those who qualify get wraparound services to help break that cycle.”
With the help of a grant from the Abell Foundation, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office has seen success. During his tenure, Bernstein said, the number of participants in the marijuana diversion program has also doubled from 700 in 2010 to 1,400 in 2012, which they accomplished by expanding the requirements.
For example, if an offender successfully completes the program then re-offends, he or she is not disqualified from participating again.
None of the prosecutor’s offices could provide statistics on recidivism, nor were they available from most jurisdictions nationwide, according to NAPSA.
“That’s where I think we’re a little in the dark,” Fois, the D.C. deputy attorney general said. “We don’t get good feedback from [the Metropolitan Police Department] or from the Youth Court.”
However, Fois and others still contend that the programs are successful.
“I think these programs are successful based on the goals,” which is to free courtrooms and prisons for serious offenders, Bernstein said.
Erzen said in Prince George’s County, on average, more than half of the juveniles who are referred to diversion programs successfully complete them, a sign of success.
A. Dwight Pettit, a Baltimore-based attorney, said a majority of his clients who are eligible for diversion take advantage of it.
“I think they’re working and they’re very beneficial, especially for young African-American men,” he said. “The criminal justice system has been so unfair, especially with regards to the disproportionate sentencing of young Black males in the so-called war on drugs that politically, these programs became necessary.”