What is a Diversion Program in the Criminal Justice System?

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  • 0:00 Crime Has Consequences
  • 0:46 Diversion Programs
  • 1:34 Diversion vs.…
  • 5:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet

Kenneth has a JD, practiced law for over 10 years, and has taught criminal justice courses as a full-time instructor.

A conviction record is often more punishing than the sentence for the crime. Because of this, many courts offer programs to eliminate the conviction while still instilling some consequence for the offense. In this lesson, we will explain the various types of diversion programs and how they work.

Crime Has Consequences

Tina's lawyer told her that if she pleaded guilty to the possession charge, she would do no time, and her record would remain clean. She did all that, and then a few weeks later, her boss fired her due to a no tolerance for drugs rule. What went wrong?

One of the goals of our corrections system is to rehabilitate lawbreakers. However, even if they become rehabilitated, the record of a conviction often destroys future opportunities and increases their chance of re-offending. To combat that cycle of punishment and recidivism, or committing an offense after completing punishment for committing an offense, many jurisdictions have institution diversion-based programs.

Diversion Programs

Diversion means the suspension of formal criminal proceedings against a defendant, whereupon completion of conditions, the defendant, having never fully entered the system, has their charges dismissed and record expunged. The reasons for diversion include:

  • Lowering costs to the system by avoiding incarceration and probation
  • Reducing labeling and stigma
  • Preventing the foreclosure of future opportunities that come with a record
  • Reducing caseload of justice system
  • Reducing recidivism

For example, Jimmy stole some cigars from a convenience store. At court, the prosecutor offered him community service, a fine, and restitution to the store owner or jail. Once he completed the conditions, he would see a judge who would dismiss the charges.

Diversion vs. Diversionary Programs

True diversion is where the defendant is kept completely out of the system upon completion of certain conditions. Upon completion of the conditions, which typically are rehab programs, community service, fines, and restitution, his or her record would remain clean.

Let's say Jimmy showed up to court and met with a prosecutor who gave him a list of conditions to complete. A few months later after paying a fine, completing community service, and paying restitution to the convenience store owner, the prosecutor dropped the charges as if they were never brought up in the first place. Then, Jimmy's charges and arrest record are expunged so no record of the incident exists.

True diversion programs are rare, as most jurisdictions want more control over the defendant during the process. As such, variations of diversionary programs have cropped up. Most diversion programs can be put in three categories: minimization of penetration, conditional diversion, and unconditional diversion.

Minimization of penetration means that the defendant is put into the system, but only so far. Typically, there would be a first court date and a meeting where a diversion program would be offered and conditions set. The court would set a series of dates to ensure compliance and that the conditions are met, and the process ends there and the charges are dismissed. If not, the charges would continue.

Another program is conditional diversion, which simply means that the defendant will get the benefit of a dismissal and an expunged record only after the conditions are met. Most diversion programs have conditions attached. However, in many jurisdictions, the defendant would have to plead guilty and would be subject to further prosecution if the conditions were not met.

Unconditional diversion means that the defendant is released from the system at any point in the system, and once released, no threat of further prosecution exists. This is typically reserved for lower end misdemeanors and first-time offenders.

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