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Diversion programs combat crime, drugs, mental illness

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(The Center Square) — As states deal with the mentally ill and drug users in the criminal justice system, many use diversion programs to steer people into help.

The idea is to avoid incarceration by offering different forms of support, enhance public safety, and lower costs.

Some reforms have been in the works in Pennsylvania, where recidivism rates have stayed high and flat. Other states, however, could offer a model for change.

“A significant number of those who cycle through jails are individuals with serious mental illness, the vast majority of whom also have drug- or alcohol- related needs that can complicate treatment,” National Conference of State Legislatures Program Principal Amber Widgery wrote in a report for the NCSL on deflection and diversion programs.

Deflection happens before someone gets arrested, with the goal of providing help to someone before the police, courts, or health services get involved. Diversion happens after an arrest and can steer someone into treatment or a program, usually overseen by prosecutors or court officials, that gets charges dismissed after completion.

If the programs work, they could keep more residents out of prison. Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections’ Recidivism Risk Reduction Initiative has shown some progress since it began in 2008. Still, the commonwealth’s recidivism rate has slightly increased to 65% within three years of an inmate’s release over the last decade.

Criminal justice researchers have argued that prisoners can have trouble getting a job because they lack a useful credential like a degree, certification, or a letter of recommendation from a previous job. That can make it hard to work after prison because employers want to minimize their risk.

Pennsylvania’s high recidivism rate is in line with national figures. About 66% of prisoners released in 2008 were arrested within three years, and 82% within 10 years, according to a 2021 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that pulled data from 24 states.

Not all of those arrests came from threats to public safety, however. A significant number were arrested for a parole or probation violation.

The goal of deflection and diversion programs is to avoid burdening county jails and state prisons. Pennsylvania prison officials note that drug problems and mental health issues are “common reasons for folks to come back into the system,” as DOC Acting Secretary Laurel Harry explained during an April appropriations hearing.

Some states have tried “self-referral” programs to offer help before police get involved, like Kentucky’s Angel Initiative.

“Individuals struggling with substance use can go to any Kentucky State Police post and request a connection to treatment. State law prohibits arrest of any individual requesting assistance and provides immunity from certain criminal charges if they turn in illicit substances and paraphernalia,” Widgery wrote in the NCSL report.

Utah has created a “warm line,” similar to a crisis hotline, to offer self-referral options.

In Tucson, Arizona, the police have a Substance Use Resource Team, Mental Health Support Team, and Homeless Outreach Team to offer treatment or peer support and avoid an emergency call.

Ohio has expanded funding for post-overdose programs in the form of Drug Abuse Response Team grants, the NCSL report noted, which follows up with overdose victims and families with three days to offer treatment and connections to support groups.

Pennsylvania has some similar programs on the local level. In Northumberland County, officials recently announced that their “warm handoff” program, which offers medication and mental health counseling for drug users in recovery, will be funded by money from the county’s opioid settlement.

The commonwealth also has a number of diversion courts: drug courts, mental health courts, and veterans courts all exist in Pennsylvania as an alternative to jail or prison. Other states, however, have diversionary courts for domestic relations and general diversion issues, which Pennsylvania does not.

The NCSL report noted that deflection programs have become popular for their potential to save taxpayer dollars, reduce costs, improve relations between communities and police, and decrease crime.

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