A Multisite Evaluation of Prosecutor-Led Pretrial Diversion: Effects on Conviction, Incarceration, and Recidivism

Date01 October 2021
Published date01 October 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2021, Vol. 32(8) 890 –909
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/08874034211000403
A Multisite Evaluation of
Prosecutor-Led Pretrial
Diversion: Effects on
Conviction, Incarceration,
and Recidivism
Robert C. Davis1, Warren A. Reich2,
Michael Rempel2, and Melissa Labriola2
Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in prosecutor-led pretrial
diversion programs, yet up-to-date research on the effectiveness of these programs
is lacking. Participants in four prosecutor-led diversion programs, Cook County, IL
(separate analyses for misdemeanor and felony participants), Milwaukee County, WI
(two distinct programs varying in participant risk level and treatment intensity), and
Chittenden County, VT, were propensity-score matched to comparison defendants
(total n = 5,040). All programs yielded a significant decrease in instant case conviction
(mean odds ratio = .12) and use of jail sentences (mean odds ratio = .33). There was
also a trend toward reduced re-arrest at 2 years (mean odds ratio = .79). Three of four
diversion programs significantly delayed onset of first re-arrest. Taken together, results
support the effectiveness of a diverse set of prosecutor-led pretrial diversion programs
that varied in charge severity, participant risk level, and program duration and intensity.
pretrial diversion, criminal court, program evaluation
Recent years have seen an increase in pretrial diversion programs across the country.
This trend can be discerned in Department of Justice requests for proposals and, indeed
1National Police Foundation, Washington, DC, USA
2Center for Court Innovation, New York, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Robert C. Davis, National Police Foundation, 2550 S Clark St Suite 1130, Arlington, VA 22202,
Washington, DC, USA.
Email: rdavis@policefoundation.org
1000403CJPXXX10.1177/08874034211000403Criminal Justice Policy ReviewDavis et al.
Davis et al. 891
the Bureau of Justice Assistance has provided funding to many incipient diversion
initiatives across the country, primarily in prosecutor offices. The current interest in
diversion programs may be viewed as part of the national interest in reducing large jail
populations and the belief that many individuals are better served by programs and
services rather than the traditional criminal justice system (California Proposition 47
Pretrial diversion typically occurs early in case processing, either before a case is
filed in court or following an arraignment on criminal charges. In addition to poten-
tially saving criminal justice system resources (especially if diversion takes place very
early in case processing), successful completion of a diversion program allows defen-
dants to avoid the collateral consequences of a conviction or incarceration, including
the loss of housing or employment, risk of deportation for non-citizens, or a myriad of
other long-term deleterious effects on income, employment, or psychological
Early Diversion Programs
Formal diversion dates back at least as far back as the President’s Commission on Law
Enforcement’s report (1967). Recognizing that courts were overcrowded, the
Commission recommended that first-time defendants who suffered from unemploy-
ment, alcoholism, or mental illness might benefit more from an early service interven-
tion than from traditional prosecution to disposition.
Based on recommendations of the 1967 President’s Commission, the Department
of Labor funded two large experiments, one in New York City and one in Washington,
D.C. Other federally funded experiments soon followed in the early 1970s, and by
1977 there were in excess of 200 diversion programs nationwide (Feeley, 1983). Yet
contrary to expectation, as evaluation studies became more sophisticated, they
tended to reveal null or negative effects on conviction rates, recidivism, and cost
savings (Zimring, 1973). For example, a large randomized controlled trial found no
differences in case outcomes, vocational outcomes, re-arrests, or days in jail (Baker
& Sadd, 1979). The researchers pointed to the possibility that these null effects
resulted from a stringent prosecutor selection process which screened out all but
weak and low-level cases and allowed in only cases that would not have otherwise
experienced adverse legal outcomes even in the absence of diversion. Furthermore,
a federally funded program in New Haven (CT) did not fare well in rigorous research
that found it was more expensive than post-conviction probation (Freed et al., 1973).
In a study of a deferred prosecution program for DWI offenders in the state of
Washington, Salzberg and Klingberg (1983) found little to no reduction of post-
deferral alcohol-related traffic violations for those who participated in a diversion-
ary deferred prosecution program.
Researchers and other court system experts began cautioning that diversion pro-
grams simply expanded social control over defendants who would not otherwise be
subjected to complete court-mandated requirements (Freed, 1974). With little robust
evidence that diversion programs improved court outcomes for participants, reduced

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