4 Prosecutor-Driven Diversion Programs Giving Second Chances

(More prosecutors are turning to diversion programs to give people second chances before entering the criminal justice system. Photo: Getty Images)

In honor of Second Chances Month, we’re spotlighting programs that are that keeping people out of the criminal justice system.

By Matt Keyser
National Partnership for Pretrial Justice

So often in the criminal justice system, second chances come post-conviction. But as the nation reckons with criminal justice reform, progressive-minded prosecutors are implementing programs aimed at keeping people from ever entering the system in the first place.

The growth of these programs comes at a time when, nationwide, jails are overcrowded, resources are strained, and county and city budgets are stretched thin. These programs largely help ease those burdens by diverting people who are charged with low-level and non-violent crimes away from the system.

This diversion can help the accused individual in a variety of ways. Depending on the severity of the offense, a conviction could mean losing access to housing, employment, or community services.

In honor of Second Chances Month this April, we’re spotlighting four diversion programs across the United States that are keeping people out of the system, not adding additional harms of the system, and giving a chance at redemption.

Restorative Justice in Washington, D.C.

In 2016, the Washington, D.C. Office of the Attorney General changed the way it prosecuted young people for certain crimes.

Depending on the charges, prosecutors could opt to defer individuals to a newly formed Restorative Justice Program that aimed to keep young people out of the criminal justice system while still holding them accountable for their actions.

The program focuses on bringing a resolution between the harmed individual and the individual responsible for harm during an in-person meeting between the two, their parents, and a prosecutor with the OAG. The harmed individual can ask for a number of conditions, from an apology or monetary compensation, to specific conditions that the individual responsible make life improvements.

If the individual responsible abides by the conditions and fulfills the request, the charges against them will be dropped. If not, their case will proceed through the legal system.

The program doesn’t apply to all charges, excluding crimes that involve a gun or domestic violence.

A 2020 analysis showed there was a 15 percent drop in recidivism rates for those who entered the program, according to WAMU, Washington, D.C.’s NPR affiliate.

The program has also forced prosecutors to rethink how they go about their jobs, Seema Gajwani with the OAG told DCist, a D.C.-based online news outlet.

“I think it’s really changed the culture of prosecution in this office,” Gajwani told the publication. “It’s propelled prosecutors to think more broadly about crime and conflict.”

SMART Prosecution in Jackson County, Mo.

At a Kansas City community center that feeds the unhoused people, video cameras captured a man punching another man three times before driving away.

The attacker was later arrested and charged with assault.

His case was diverted to a Neighborhood Accountability Board with the support of the harmed individual. Instead of facing a judge, the individual responsible for harm went before a four-member panel of community members. He told the board he was drinking that day and didn’t remember the attack. He told the panel that he was sorry and didn’t mean to hurt anyone.

Instead of going to jail, the panel set a series of conditions to build support and take accountability: to attend anger management classes, apologize to the person causing harm, and take an assessment for substance abuse.

If he complied with all the conditions, his assault charges would be dropped.

The restorative justice approach was part of a SMART Prosecution Grant Jackson County received from the U.S. Department of Justice. A prosecutor in the Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office would identify cases within a targeted “high-crime” zone in the Kansas City Police Department’s East End that were eligible for the program.

The goal, officials said, was to take a new approach at prosecuting certain felony cases.

“This process uses restorative justice principles to address harm and hold individuals accountable for offenses,” officials said in a press release.

In the case of the attack at the community center, officials said in a press release the person causing harm was “sincerely grateful for the opportunity to right his wrong in a more substantive way.”

Veterans Diversion Program in Lancaster County, Neb.

Officials in Lancaster County wanted to better help veterans who found themselves tangled in the criminal justice system.

They knew of the stresses veterans and active-duty service members faced when they returned home from combat—not only the mental toll from being deployed, but also adjusting back to everyday life.

Through collaboration between the Lancaster County Attorney’s Office, the Department of Veteran Affairs, and community organizations, they created a diversion program aimed to assist veterans who faced criminal charges.

The focus of the program, officials said, is to hold people accountable and increase public safety, but also connect veterans to the VA for services and treatments.

“We’re geared to the veteran because the veteran deserves it,” said then-County Attorney Joe Kelly at an introductory news conference in 2012.

Those who are charged with non-violent crimes and have no prior criminal histories are eligible for the program.

“Our goal is to make sure that every veteran who has served not only gets the benefits but gets the help that they need so they can live full, productive lives,” Will Ackerman with the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System told the Lincoln Journal Star. 

Young Adult Diversion in Pennington County, S.D.

Young adults in Pennington County who may have made a “bad decision,” might be eligible for a diversion program that, if completed, could expunge any record of the crime from their criminal history.

Those ages 18 to 25 who are charged with a misdemeanor or low-level felony are

considered for the county’s Young Adult Diversion Program, which launched in 2016. Those accepted have up to four months to complete the program, which includes volunteering for community service, receiving training or education for work, and undergoing training or counseling.

If they don’t get into more legal trouble within a year, the state attorney’s office will support a motion to expunge their record.

“The premise is that it has to be harder than pleading guilty to complete the program,” officials said in a press release. “Our motto is that the State will not take the walk for them, but will ‘light the path’ for them to do it themselves.”

One man who spoke to the Rapid City Journal newspaper said he was facing a drug arrest in 2018. His case was diverted to the program, which he said “changed my life.”

“It’s got me on track where I think I’ll have a lot better life,” he told the newspaper.

About 80 percent of people who participated in the program have completed it, according to Marty Krause, the diversion coordinator for the Pennington County State’s Attorney Office.

“The whole idea is they’ve changed their behavior, they’ve become a productive member of society,” Krause told the Rapid City Journal. “We want them to be able to go out and work and be productive and not be forced back in.”