Police Diversion at Arrest: A Systematic Review of the Literature

AuthorCaroline Harmon-Darrow,Jenny Afkinich,Nancy D. Franke,Gail Betz
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2023, Vol. 50, No. 3, March 2023, 307 –329.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/00938548221131965
Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions
© 2022 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
A Systematic Review of the Literature
Rutgers University School of Social Work
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of Maryland Baltimore School of Social Work
University of Maryland Baltimore Health and Human Services Library
Police-initiated diversion programs are an increasingly common intervention to prevent excessive arrests of vulnerable
populations. This systematic literature review carefully examined the current state of research to evaluate what is known
about these programs and to determine the next steps for the field. Health, human services, legal, and criminal justice data-
bases were searched for empirical research on police-initiated pre-arrest diversion of adults from 2000 to the present, result-
ing in 47 relevant studies for the review. The study designs, analyses, and findings are described. Overall, police diversion
programs were associated with reducing recidivism and lowering costs, although there is little association between program
participation and improved behavioral health. More in-depth qualitative and quasi-experimental research is needed. Police
diversion programs can be seen as one major social justice strategy to reduce dependence on mass incarceration to resolve
social problems.
Keywords: policing; diversion; mental illness; substance use; recidivism
Diversion programs formally began in the United States as a result of the President’s
Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice in 1967 (Farrell et al.,
2018; President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, 1967).
In the 1980s and 1990s, “get tough” policies overshadowed diversion programming until
a resurgence in the 2000s (Farrell et al., 2018). Police diversion programs have grown
AUTHORS’ NOTE: Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Caroline Harmon-
Darrow, School of Social Work, Rutgers University, 120 Albany St., New Brunswick, NJ 08901, USA; e-mail:
1131965CJBXXX10.1177/00938548221131965Criminal Justice and BehaviorHarmon-Darrow et al. / POLICE DIVERSION AT ARREST
rapidly since 2000 as a response to a range of policing and community challenges as
jurisdictions search for common sense solutions to overburdened police departments and
criminal courts, high arrest and incarceration rates, and high police contact with vulner-
able populations. Many voices in communities of color, including the Black Lives Matter
Movement, have renewed focus on confronting police harassment and violence, with
police treatment of people experiencing homelessness, mental illness, and substance use
disorders under particular scrutiny. For the past 30 years, misdemeanor arrest rates have
held or climbed while crime rates have plummeted, indicating the criminalization of more
minor acts, arrests for which can have far-reaching collateral consequences for defen-
dants’ employment, housing, parenting, and well-being (Alexander, 2010; Kohler-
Hausmann, 2018; Natapoff, 2018). Residents of communities of color and vulnerable
populations often feel unsafe and overlooked by police at the same time, with communi-
ties of color becoming what advocates call paradoxically both “over-policed and under-
served” (No Boundaries Coalition, 2016).
The intention of diversion programs is to prevent people accused of low-level offenses
from penetrating further into the criminal legal system while also identifying people who
would benefit from treatment programming and referrals to behavioral health services in
lieu of criminal legal sanctions. Diversion programs can vary widely, serving different pop-
ulations and occurring at varying points of the criminal legal process. In addition to the
original intention, diversion programs can have numerous other benefits, including reduc-
ing stigma, reducing police, court and jail costs and caseloads, and improving community
relations (Farrell et al., 2018).
Police-initiated diversion programs are programs that divert participants prebooking, or
in lieu of arrest, often at the discretion of police officers. One common model is the Crisis
Intervention Team (CIT) or Memphis Model (Dupont et al., 2007) in which trained dis-
patchers send specially trained CIT officers to respond to calls in which a behavioral health
need is identified. The officers are able to refer participants to mental health receiving facil-
ity with the input and assistance of their behavioral health partners (Dupont et al., 2007). A
second model is called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). In LEAD programs,
participants are provided intensive case management in lieu of arrest (International
Association of Chiefs of Police [IACP], n.d.). The case managers offer a range of support-
ive services and make referrals to other agencies for behavioral treatment and other pro-
gramming. LEAD programs aim to reduce racial disparities by adopting a harm reduction
approach with participants who are routinely accused of low-level offenses. Other models
of police-initiated diversion include secondary response models (i.e., officers call a behav-
ioral health provider to the scene of a call after they have arrived), sobering centers, or
implementing risk assessment tools followed by referrals to providers. These initiatives are
in line with the Sequential Intercept Model conceptualized by Munetz and Griffin (2006)
which states people should not be arrested or incarcerated because of their mental illness.
They should instead have access to sufficient behavioral health services to avert criminal
legal system contact.
Much of the current police-initiated diversion literature has been focused on youth. In
2018, Wilson and colleagues (2018) published a Campbell systematic review of police-
assisted diversion programs for youth. They found a modest decrease (6 percentage points)
in the likelihood of reoffending among youth who were diverted compared with youth who
were arrested as usual. The authors did not identify meaningful differences between

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