Diversion programs offer a way for people with minimal criminal histories to avoid becoming trapped in the criminal justice system.
"You don't want to see people make that one mistake in life and have to live with it for the rest of their lives," commented the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
In Iowa, instead of being found guilty and sent to prison or probation, the offender is placed in what is called "deferred adjudication."
During the deferred adjudication period, the offender is given a set of conditions to meet. These conditions are meant to help offenders take responsibility for their offenses and address the root of the issue that led them to offend. If they successfully complete the program, their qualifying offense is expunged from the record.
Preventing the offender from having a long-term criminal record limits the damage from a criminal conviction that was the result of drug abuse or mental illness, for example. It also allows productive members of society to remain at home, care for their families and continue working while working through the program.
Whether certain diversion programs are available depends on several factors, including the county in which the alleged offense occurred. The diversion may be to an out-of-court program or to a specialty court where a judge supervises the offender. Examples of specialty courts are drug courts and veterans' courts.
Do diversion programs work?
To be considered effective, diversion programs need to do at least as well as traditional methods at preventing crime and reducing recidivism. The National Drug Court Institute reported in 2016 that drug courts reduced recidivism by a national average of 14%. Some succeeded in reducing it by 35% or even 80%. Other diversion programs have also shown strong results.
Potential downsides of diversion programs
According to the ABA Journal, there are some potential issues with diversion programs. For example, some counties require offenders to pay fees, sometimes to private companies that operate diversion programs. In 2016, the New York Times reported that some jurisdictions' fees are as high as $5,000, which defense attorneys say keeps some clients from taking advantage of the programs.
Another problem could be prosecutorial discretion. Entry into diversion programs is generally decided by prosecutors, and they often have broad discretion about who to allow in. It could be tempting to focus on people with minor charges, even though defendants facing more serious charges could benefit more from diversion. It is also possible that bias and stereotyping could influence diversion decisions, resulting in minorities and the poor being offered diversion at lower rates than others.
If you are interested in a diversion program, discuss the available options with your criminal defense attorney.