(Chicago) – A new survey of Illinois state’s attorneys illustrates the scope and variety of prosecutorial diversion initiatives operating in jurisdictions across the state.
The intent of such programs often is to redirect individuals away from the criminal justice system and into community-based services, thereby preventing the unnecessary costs and harmful consequences—to the justice system, to communities, and to individuals and families—of repeated arrests, convictions, and incarcerations.
The report, No Entry: A Survey of Prosecutorial Diversion in Illinois, was produced by the Center for Health and Justice at TASC. It describes 54 programs operating in 37 Illinois counties, based on information submitted by prosecutors on diversion programs and options offered in their jurisdictions. The survey collected information on program authorization, oversight, target populations, goals, structure, services, outcomes, and evaluation.
“The survey highlights the work of state’s attorneys to meet local needs, and the needs of people coming through their systems, while also highlighting areas for improvement and growth,” said TASC President Pam Rodriguez.
“The current criminal justice system is clearly too expensive, and is proving to be an ineffective way to handle many offenders. In an effort to achieve an efficient and effective model, we must embrace initiatives that not only hold offenders accountable, but also appropriately impact their lives,” said Joseph Bruscato, Winnebago County state’s attorney and chairman of the Board of Governors for the Illinois State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor’s Office. “Alternative justice programs can substantially reduce the likelihood that an individual will repeat their criminal behavior, and gives them the opportunity to be restored to useful citizenship.”
Joseph McMahon, Kane County state’s attorney and member of the same Board of Governors, notes support among criminal justice partners for programs like these. “Diversion programs receive widespread support in Kane County’s criminal courtrooms—from our office, from judges, and from defense attorneys—because they effectively address issues with people who need an alternative approach. I support and advocate for diversion programs and alternative courts because they hold people accountable yet provide an opportunity to move forward, they benefit the community, and they reduce long-term costs. They are the right thing to do.”
Preventing the Collateral Consequences of Convictions
With criminal justice reform efforts underway in jurisdictions across the country, diversion programs across the front end of the criminal justice system continuum not only help stem the vast numbers of people flowing into courts and correctional systems, but also may forestall the long-term collateral consequences of a conviction.
With that understanding, and to be clear and consistent about what type of programs were included in the survey, the project adopted a definition of “diversion” that included only those programs and practices that divert individuals in a way that affords the opportunity to avoid a criminal conviction on public record.
“Policies and practices that divert people from arrest and detention are critically important,” said TASC Policy Director Laura Brookes. “The survey acknowledges that a criminal conviction—for either a misdemeanor or felony—sets off all kinds of collateral consequences that often severely hamper an individual’s ability to become and remain a productive member of the community.”
By facilitating early intervention, prosecutors’ diversion policies, practices, and programs can reduce court caseloads, prevent criminal records, and encourage quicker access to services that put men and women on the path to health, stability, and community participation.
Observations and Recommendations
In addition to highlighting program goals and collaboration, several observations emerged from the survey analysis.
For example, most programs responding to the survey limited participation eligibility based on the defendant’s charge or criminal history, and many were limited to first-time offenses. Most featured connections to clinical services, such as substance use and mental health interventions, with many accessing other supportive services as well.
A number of respondents reported either that evidence-based practices were not used or that they were not sure if they were used. In terms of program funding, a majority of programs surveyed relied on local budgets and/or participant fees. Additionally, responses indicated that while many programs reported outcomes, in most cases they did not rise to a statistical measure that can be analyzed or compared on level footing with other programs.
The report offers eight recommendations intended to guide criminal justice system practitioners and other stakeholders in the development, implementation, expansion, replication, and improvement of diversion programs. The recommendations are also intended to inform and motivate discussions and decisions made by policymakers and other decision-makers, as diversion programs continue to proliferate.
- Incorporate research findings and evidence-based practices into diversion programs.
- Apply resources to individuals and programs with potential to achieve the greatest impact.
- Incorporate community-based behavioral health and social services into diversion programs, as appropriate, especially substance use and mental health services.
- Leverage all available resources for community-based behavioral health and social services, and strongly advocate to protect and expand them.
- Adopt standardized program goals, outcome and performance measures, and terminology.
- Adopt standardized data collection and analysis models and mechanisms.
- Develop a web-based, searchable directory of diversion programs in Illinois.
- Develop opportunities for cross-system education, training, and technical assistance available to jurisdictions for the purpose of establishing, expanding, or improving prosecutorial diversion programs.
For further information on front-end diversion initiatives, please visit the Center for Health and Justice at TASC.