There has been much debate over the years regarding stringent sentencing and the need for public safety. At one point, the Zero Tolerance movement doled out severe penalties for even minor drug offenses. What lawmakers and taxpayers may not have considered at the time was the high cost of incarcerating the increased number of people, the debilitating effect it has on communities and the heightened need for social services.
Exit ramps as the alternative
Rather than convicting defendants, these exit ramps minimize their exposure to the legal system through arrest, prosecution or incarceration. The idea is to keep those with less severe charges away from the criminal courts and prison system, which often does the opposite to rehabilitation, putting the lesser criminals in contact with those who pose a more serious threat to society and creating the downward spiral of recidivism.
A different set of tools
Instead of people learning how to become better criminals from experts they meet in prison, the diversion programs offer tools that help people provide for themselves and family lawfully and constructively. The programs include:
- Pre-police encounter: Rather than involving law enforcement, trained civilian responders can address community problems like substance abuse, neighbor disputes, mental health issues, and homelessness.
- Pre-arrest diversion: Known as LEAD, this program gives law enforcement the discretion to divert people accused of non-violent crimes or misdemeanors to programs that address the underlying need. It is beneficial to those experiencing a mental health crisis or substance abuse problem.
- Pre-charge diversion: This program enables prosecutors to use discretion to provide services rather than pressing charges. It can include community service hours to teach life skills rather than imposing jail time.
- Pretrial diversion: Rather than a criminal court, this program is a kind of problem-solving court that requires the accused to fulfill some requirements and sometimes involves entering a plea.
Making an impact in communities
The numbers change from study to study, but the results are uniformly positive. These programs reduce the likelihood of recidivism and positively impact those at risk. Moreover, tailoring these programs to fit the local community’s needs can further increase their success and institute real change in communities decimated by drug epidemics and mass incarceration for generations. The key is advocating for the programs and seeking them out as an alternative to time in juvenile corrections, county jails or state prisons.