Alternatives to Incarceration

Strategy Incarceration Alternatives

Different types of crimes require different responses. In some cases, court-ordered treatment and services yield better outcomes than traditional punishments like prison sentences. Diversion programs — where eligibility criteria, program requirements, and participant monitoring are carefully considered — can be an excellent method of intervening with individuals before they escalate their criminal behavior. These programs can also preserve limited investigative and prosecutorial resources, enabling prosecutors to focus on more violent offenders.

Drug Diversion

Some IPS jurisdictions that have been hard hit by the opioid crisis are implementing drug diversion programs to break the cycle of addiction and crime. Based on the belief that many low-level criminal offenders with substance abuse issues are in need of community-based treatment rather than incarceration, the Prosecutor's Office in Hocking County, OH is developing a prosecutor-led diversion program in partnership with Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime of Southeast Ohio (TASC). Case managers from TASC will screen prospective participants for eligibility and make sure they receive counseling and treatment to address the underlying causes of addiction and criminal offending. A specialized prosecutor and a diversion coordinator are overseeing the program to ensure participants have the tools necessary to maintain sobriety after the program’s conclusion.

In Milwaukee, WI, a specialized prosecutor in the District Attorney's Office is assessing and assigning low-risk individuals with substance abuse issues to diversion, deferred prosecution, the Veterans Treatment Initiative, or Drug Treatment Court, based on their individual needs. A new Opioid Community Prosecutor is coordinating community outreach and collaborating with law enforcement and researchers to differentiate defendants in need of treatment from dangerous drug suppliers and dealers. By affording low-risk individuals the chance to treat their drug dependency, the city aims to disrupt demand for opioids while conserving investigative and prosecutorial resources for drug traffickers.

Juvenile and Young Adult Diversion

Diversion programs can also be used to intervene with individuals heading in a violent direction. The prosecutor’s office in St. Louis, MO recognizes that the part of the brain responsible for impulse control does not fully form until the mid-20s, and that people ages 17 to 25 are developmentally different from older adults. And yet they’re treated similarly for purposes of criminal liability. That’s why the Circuit Attorney’s Office started a prosecutor-led diversion program aimed at these young adults.

The Young Adult Offender Program (YOP) works with nonviolent felony offenders in the targeted age group who present a moderate risk of reoffense. Based on each participant's needs and goals, the YOP team customizes a care plan that could include therapy, mentorship, substance abuse counseling, budgeting, housing, education, employment, and parenting support. The prosecutor’s office also partners with CareSTL Health, which connects YOP participants to health insurance and medical care. Although program participants plead guilty to the crimes committed — appearing before a diversion judge on a regular basis, and monitored by experienced probation officers — their guilty pleas are withdrawn and charges dismissed upon successful completion of the program.

Savannah, GA is intervening with even younger offenders — adolescents. To conserve prosecution resources for violent offenders, the Chatham County District Attorney’s Office is diverting nonviolent juveniles to the Youth Intercept program (YIP). Instead of traditional prosecution, participants are connected with groups who help them complete homework, develop plans for the future, engage in positive social activities, and create productive bonds with their community. In follow-up interviews, 23 YIP participants emphasized the importance of the program in providing them with positive activities and role models. One participant discussed the importance of a particular YIP mentor in shaping his education. “He teaches us about being trustworthy and different things we need when we grow up,” the participant explained. “He tells us things he did as a youth, and how we should learn from that.”  

York City, PA’s program is also for youth. The District Attorney’s Office is hiring a specialized Group Violence Intervention prosecutor to help determine which offenders are suitable for diversion. When candidates are eligible, they work with the York County Human Services Family Engagement Unit to pursue alternatives to prosecution, which include regular meetings with a coordinator and their family to design a plan to promote their safety and well-being, as well as decreased involvement with formal law enforcement systems. 

In Plymouth County, MA, the District Attorney’s Office is enhancing its Safe Streets Initiative — a coordinated effort to reduce gun violence through prevention, enforcement, and re-entry, with an eye toward the effects that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have on subsequent criminality. They are accomplishing this through the following four tactics: (1) increasing prosecutorial support during probation violation hearings; (2) completing a Planning Phase on the role of Juvenile Diversion in Violence Reduction, particularly in expanding Ceasefire to include juveniles with ACEs who are at-risk for gun violence, in order to increase prosecutors’ ability to effectively and sustainably prevent violent crime; (3) supporting the development of the Safe Streets community coalition in order to build sustainable law enforcement/community partnerships; and (4) enhancing community and first responder awareness and knowledge of ACEs and their effects.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice (RJ) involves conferencing that brings together a crime victim, the person that harmed them, and their supporters for a mediated conversation designed to empower victims and change behaviors of offenders. By addressing the underlying cause of the offender’s actions and increasing victim participation in the justice process, these programs aim to reduce recidivism and promote healing for victims and communities.

 In 2016, the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia created an RJ program for offenders between the ages of 12 and 24. With the victim’s consent, youth and young adults who commit specific crimes like credit card theft and simple assault may enter the program. After several one-on-one meetings between the defendant and the RJ facilitator, an RJ conference is held, during which the defendant admits wrongdoing and apologizes to the victim. The defendant signs an agreement to take certain actions to make amends to the victim, which is followed by at least six months of monitoring to ensure compliance. Agreement conditions may include oral and written apologies, drug treatment, psychological counseling, vocational counseling, schooling or full-time employment, and community service.