creators of programs and policies structurally exclude lower income minorities
Almost anyone in front of a judge for infractions such as DWI or possession of small amounts of illegal drugs hopes to avoid jail or prison. Diversion programs like education for drunken driving or drug rehabilitation seem a far more preferable solution. Diversion programs came about as a way to move persons from the overburdened courts and overcrowded jails by offering them treatment while lowering overall costs.
Diversion programs work to cut criminal justice costs and improve communities but often discriminate against minorities, a Prison Policy Initiative, report says. The report, “Disparities in Diversion,” says that some programs structurally exclude low-income minorities. After denial or exclusion from diversion programs, some individuals suffer from post-release issues like homelessness and unemployment.
Although diversion is a much sought out alternative, it alone is not enough to address the impact of mass criminalization because creators of the programs and policies designed them with restrictions that affect persons of color, the March 7, 2023 report said.
The report noted that programs must equitably encompass steps accessible to communities overrepresented in the criminal legal system.
The best programs invest in prioritizing the wellness of the community, facilitate non-lawyer responses, and keep impacted persons out of the criminal legal system completely, the PPI concluded. Their report focuses on the pre-arrest stage and the impact on outcomes for defendants.
Even correctly administered programs can still lead to a swarm of collateral consequences that could last for years or the rest of an individual’s life, PPI said.
Research shows that inequality has a ripple effect and that policymakers involved in diversion programs must address the cost and eligibility requirements of these vital opportunities.
A survey by Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice highlighted some burdens that Alabamians face while trying to pay fees of diversion program participation.
“The majority of respondents (82%) gave up one or more basic necessities like rent, medical bills, or car payments in order to pay various fees. Unsurprisingly, more than half of a subset of survey-takers (55%) made less than $15,000 per year, and 70% had been found indigent. Despite this high level of need, only 10% were ever offered a reduced fee or a fee waiver for a diversion program,” the survey found.
Research has found that diversion programs have many requirements. One such diversion program in Jacksonville, Fla., required a person to have a third-degree “nonviolent” felony charge and only one prior nonviolent misdemeanor conviction charge to qualify for the program. Other programs have arbitrary rules and prioritize those who have little or no criminal history, using quantitative data that express the person’s “flight” risk or their public safety.
Prosecutor-led diversion programs require a person to plead guilty in court in order to participate. It also removes a person’s right to any further due process and makes them subject to immediate sentencing if the participant is terminated from the diversion program.
The survey managed by Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice also found that “respondents were about equally White (45%) and Black (47%) and … assert that the Black-White wealth gap in Alabama ‘could be a major reason’ that Black Alabamians are disproportionately excluded from diversion opportunities,” said PPI.
Although these diversion tools appear objective, the fact remains that they derive from racially biased data because they exclude Black persons imprisoned at higher rates than any other ethnic group, the report said.
“Diversion programs are funded by users themselves, creating a two-tiered system where those who can pay will receive the benefits of diversion,” according to PPI.