Is Diversion the Right Way to ‘Defund’ the Police?

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Photo by Nick KC7CBF via Flickr

As police critics call for reducing public spending on law enforcement, some reformers suggest that one way to accomplish that effectively is to divert more crime suspects out of the justice system early.

That was the theme of a panel discussion Wednesday at the annual national criminal justice forum sponsored by the National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA) and the International Community Corrections Association (ICCA). The program was held online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Diversion in one form or another is not a new concept. It has been practiced in the U.S. at least since the 1940s, says ICCA president Steve Woolworth.

Among its well-known versions are the Memphis crisis intervention team, in which specially trained police officers may take mentally ill persons directly to medical help, and the nation’s 3,000 specialty courts, which offer many defendants the option of drug treatment and other services in lieu of sending them to jail.

Depending on the jurisdiction, as many as 40 percent of 911 calls could involve cases  that may be suitable for diversion from the criminal justice system, said Ayesha Delany-Brumsey of the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

A prime example of such efforts discussed Thursday is Seattle’s LEAD program (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), which says it diverts people suspected of low-level  drug crime, prostitution and “crimes of poverty” from the justice system.

LEAD connects such people “with intensive case managers who can provide crisis response, immediate psychosocial assessment, and long term wrap-around services including substance use disorder treatment and housing.”

LEAD, more than a decade old, in response to the what it calls the “movement for black lives,” has given itself an alternate acronym of “Let Everyone Advance with Dignity,” and includes a “new option” that “decenters law enforcement as gatekeepers to LEAD services.”

Some jurisdictions, including New York City, have experimented with permitting 911 dispatchers to refer calls directly to mental health experts without involving police.

One persistent issue is that much of the criminal justice system, such as jail booking desks, operates on a 24/7 basis, while specialized services such as drug and mental health treatment usually are on a routine weekday work schedule.

Making such options much more widely available is “costly,” said Lisa Daugaard of  Seattle’s Public Defender Association, who works on the LEAD program.

Still, Daugaard said LEAD had shown “remarkable results.” One evaluation showed that people who took part in LEAD had “88 percent lower odds of prison incarceration” than did a comparison group who were not diverted out of the justice system.

Once the program got going, the average cost of helping an individual defendant was only $532 monthly.

A third speaker, Richard Cho of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, agreed with Daugaard that a “civilian-based response” to “public disorder” complaints is needed on a 24/7 basis to “reduce the footprint of the criminal justice system.”

Cho believes that public opinion on policing is changing rapidly because of videos of incidents such as George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis an other excessive officer uses of force on crime suspects.

Panelists agreed that while police officers should continue to handle violent crimes, many in the law enforcement profession would welcome better ways to deal with the many cases at the lower end of the spectrum in which the same people repeatedly cycle in and out of  the justice system with no effective response.

Expanding opportunities for diversion would help accomplish that by “reducing police involvement in the first place,” Cho said.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

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