Many states employ the use of diversion programs so first-time or youth criminal offenders can avoid incarceration or other serious legal consequences. Research has found these programs can be effective at changing the behaviors in these criminals and reducing recidivism. These programs may also help ease the financial drain on the justice system’s funds and resources, which occurs when criminals attend trials, file appeals, or serve time in jail.

According to the National Institute of Corrections, youth diversion programs may be more effective at preventing first-time offenders from committing crimes again than other disciplinary actions taken by the juvenile justice system. However, these diversion programs may also be associated with drawbacks for the community, criminals, and victims. Not every criminal qualifies for a diversion program so it’s important to understand the eligibility requirements and how these programs work.

What Is Diversion?

Diversion programs are also sometimes referred to as first-offender programs. They’re designed to rehabilitate and counsel first-time offenders, especially juveniles, who have committed low-level crimes. These programs are offered as a way for these criminals to avoid going through a criminal trial and facing other more serious penalties, such as incarceration.

Depending on what’s offered by the state’s legislative system, a diversion program may include mandatory counseling or treatment sessions. This type of sentencing is similar to supervised or unsupervised probation because enrollees must agree to specific terms of the program to prevent facing legal consequences. However, probation terms usually don’t include a specific program for counseling or treatment.

Typically, someone is considered to be violating probation if they don’t adhere to their terms, such as getting arrested for another offense. If an enrollee misses a counseling session or doesn’t meet a certain requirement outlined in a diversion program, they may need to go back to court to face additional penalties.

A diversion program includes specific terms and conditions that an enrollee must agree and adhere to in order to complete it successfully. These terms vary by program but may include:

  • Attending vocational classes.
  • Showing up for regular counseling sessions.
  • Completing treatment programs.
  • Performing community service work.
  • Offering restitution to victims of the crime.
  • Paying fines.

When a diversion program enrollee successfully completes the program, their case is dismissed. However, the charge may still show up on their record. If a criminal completes probation without incident, they must file to potentially have their case dismissed or expunged, but the exact terms vary by jurisdiction and by case.

How Do Diversion Programs Work?

When an individual is charged with a low-level crime and it’s their first offense, a diversion program may be offered instead of a criminal trial or incarceration. The specific type of diversion program that’s offered depends on the individual, the crime committed, and the programs available in the state.

In most cases, diversion programs last between six months to one year. While an individual is enrolled in a diversion program, they’re responsible for attending counseling sessions and treatment as ordered. Diversion programs may also involve other activities, such as attending vocational classes or group therapy sessions.

To successfully complete the program, the attendee must meet all conditions of the program and have attended all sessions assigned. The attendee must also not have been charged with additional crimes while in the diversion program. Upon successful completion, the case returns to court and is dismissed.

Diversion Program Qualifications

Not every individual who is charged with a crime qualifies for a diversion program. The state attorney’s office decides whether to offer a diversion program to a criminal. If the criminal involved is under 18, the juvenile justice system may make the decision and may also administer the diversion program.

The program is usually only offered to first-time offenders or those without previous offenses on their records that are similar to the crime in question. The crime on trial must also be considered a low-level crime, which may include shoplifting, trespassing, or personal drug possession. In most cases, a criminal only qualifies for a diversion program if they haven’t attended a program in the past within a specific period of time.

Advantages of Diversion Programs

The justice system benefits from diversion programs because it preserves the resources criminals utilize in the court and jail system. If the diversion program requires enrollees to perform community service, the community also benefits from the work that’s completed by the enrollees.

Offenders can also benefit from entering a diversion program because they may have their case dismissed and can avoid incarceration or other serious legal consequences for their crime. Attending treatment programs or counseling sessions may also prevent them from committing crimes in the future.

In many cases, the victims of these crimes also benefit from diversion programs. Some diversion programs may require the criminal to pay restitution or apologize to the victim. This may help the victim to financially or emotionally recover from the crime over time.

Disadvantages of Diversion Programs

Criminals who are offered a diversion program are required to pay program fees. For some individuals, these fees may be extensive and enrollees may go into debt to avoid incarceration.

While the requirements of diversion programs may vary, some may also require enrollees to attend in-person vocational courses or complete community service hours. This can put a strain on the enrollee’s resources and may require them to take time off from work or obtain childcare. Before agreeing to a diversion program, the accused should understand all program requirements. The individual may need to review local legal resources and seek consultation on their state’s law and available programs.

Another potential argument against diversion programs is that they may enable criminals. When a criminal is offered a diversion program instead of incarceration, probation, or a more serious legal consequence, they may commit another crime. While it’s claimed that diversion programs are successful at discouraging criminals from committing additional crimes, there may not be enough research studied on the topic to conclude this.

If a diversion program isn’t properly organized and administered, it may not provide the counseling and treatment an individual needs for behavioral change. Some states utilize private companies to create and implement programs so they may not be aware of the specific requirements for enrollees. If these requirements aren’t individualized for criminals who need counseling, education, or drug treatment, they may not help these enrollees to improve, leading to additional crimes.

First-time offenders who committed low-level crimes may be offered diversion programs instead of other legal consequences. Before agreeing to these terms, individuals should seek legal help so they can discuss their options. Consulting with the right type of lawyer about the program ensures the individual understands what’s expected of them to successfully satisfy the requirements.

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