A diversion program in the criminal justice system is a form of sentence in which the criminal offender joins a rehabilitation program, which will help remedy the behavior leading to the original arrest, allow the offender to avoid conviction and, in some jurisdictions, hide a criminal record. The programs are often run by a police department, court, a district attorney's office, or outside agency. Problem-solving courts typically include a diversion component as part of their program. The purposes of diversion are generally thought to include relief to the courts, police department and probation office, better outcomes compared to direct involvement of the court system, and an opportunity for the offender to avoid prosecution by completing various requirements for the program. These requirements may include:
- Education aimed at preventing future offenses by the offender
- Restitution to victims of the offense
- Completion of community service hours
- Avoiding situations for a specified period in the future that may lead to committing another such offense (such as contact with certain people)
Diversion programs often frame these requirements as an alternative to court or police involvement or, if these institutions are already involved, further prosecution. Successful completion of program requirements often will lead to a dismissal or reduction of the charges while failure may bring back or heighten the penalties involved. Charges dismissed because of a diversion program will still lead to additional criminal history points under the US Sentencing Guidelines if there was a finding of guilt by a court or the defendant pleaded guilty or otherwise admitted guilt in open court, provided that the deferred disposition or deferred adjudication was not a juvenile matter.
Diversion and juvenile justice
Diversion has played a key role in improving outcomes and rehabilitating youthful offenders. The concept of juvenile diversion is based on the theory that processing certain youth through the juvenile justice system may do more harm than good. Programs meant to divert juvenile delinquents are often fundamentally different from the programs meant for adults. Many times youth will present with substance abuse and mental health issues which may be the underlying cause of such delinquency.
A Juvenile Diversion program has the ability to be used as an intervention strategy for first time offenders who have broken the law and found themselves in the juvenile justice system ("Juvenile Diversion Programs"). There are many benefits to this program that include, avoiding the child from being influenced by more serious criminals in a juvenile detention center, allowing the courts to use resources that are needed for those juvenile delinquents who are an actual threat to the society, and getting the child help with drug addiction or family issues (Cocozza).
In the United Kingdom
Diversion can ensure that people with mental health problems who enter (or are at risk of entering) the criminal justice system are identified and provided with appropriate mental health services, treatment and any other support they need. In the UK, Centre for Mental Health has shown that such diversion represents good value for money, with well-designed intervention helping to reduce reoffending by a third. The need for joined-up services was the focus of a Centre for Mental Health lecture in 2011, in which NHS Confederation chairman Sir Keith Pearson emphasised the need to use custody more effectively and divert those who need it into treatment.
In February 2012, the UK government pledged to roll out a national liaison and diversion service by 2014, with 101 sites were duly announced by the Department of Health. Diversion has also been found to be a key element of a more effective approach for young adults in the criminal justice process. A two-year UK pilot organised by the Centre for Mental health, with support and funding from the Department of Health the Youth Justice Board, looked into how to ensure that children and young people with mental health and other problems get the help they need as soon as they enter the youth justice system.
In the United States
The availability of diversion programs depends upon the jurisdiction, the nature of the crime (usually non-violent offences) and in many cases the exercise of prosecutorial discretion. A 2016 The New York Times investigation revealed that some prosecutors charged substantial fees for, and received significant revenue from, diversion programs. Those fees can operate as a barrier to impecunious defendants accessing diversion. Pleading guilty is often a prerequisite to access to a diversion program. This means that if a defendant proceeds to a diversion program, then fails to pay the fee for the program, the defendant can be brought back to court and proceed directly to conviction and sentencing.
Some jurisdictions in the United States may provide diversion programs for drunk driving charges. One such program is the Victim Impact Panel (VIP) administered by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) since 1982. MADD typically charges a $25 "donation" (which is defined as voluntary), even for court-mandated attendance; MADD reported $2,657,293 one year for such donations on its nonprofit tax exempt returns.
In Florida, several counties offer a diversion program for veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces. Those who qualify and complete the program will have the criminal charge dismissed and can get the case expunged from their record.
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- US Sentencing Guidelines, 4A1.2(f), 2011 revision; and see note 9: "Diversionary Dispositions.—Section 4A1.2(f) requires counting prior adult diversionary dispositions if they involved a judicial determination of guilt or an admission of guilt in open court. This reflects a policy that defendants who receive the benefit of a rehabilitative sentence and continue to commit crimes should not be treated with further leniency."
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