Conservative Jurisdictions Champion Pre-Arrest Diversion Strategies

By: Lisel Petis

Diversion Interagency Collaboration July 28, 2022

A new R Street Institute report supported by the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge explores the successful implementation of pre-arrest diversion strategies in three conservative communities. Such strategies respond to challenges facing law enforcement agencies across the country including staffing shortages, negative public perception, overpopulation in jails, increases in violent crime, and court backlogs.

While criminal justice reform can be a politically charged term, we found that several conservative jurisdictions champion pre-arrest diversion as a way to support law enforcement and to remain fiscally disciplined. These jurisdictions have prioritized police time and resources, enabling law enforcement to deal with serious crimes while simultaneously rebuilding community relationships. They have also effectively diverted low-level offenders while balancing individual rights and public safety. The paper spotlights three jurisdictions that employ at least one diversion strategy, and in so doing, reveals how the traditionally conservative values of public safety, fiscal responsibility, and limited government interference are at the core of such programs. The paper also explores how to overcome challenges around starting diversion programs.

Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD)— Cheyenne, Wyoming

Police-initiated diversion gives officers the opportunity to refer someone to intensive case management outside the criminal justice system rather than cite or arrest the individual for a crime.

Laramie County, Wyo., where Cheyenne is located, has been particularly successful in implementing Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). The community explored this option after finding that prosecuting and jailing individuals with behavioral health needs was ineffective in improving public safety. Officials and professionals merely saw a “revolving door” of the same individuals. Further, Cheyenne had seen a steady increase of mental health calls, violent crimes, and overdose related deaths; they needed to try something different.

When the program first began, some officers were hesitant to refer individuals to LEAD. In fact, one lieutenant at the Cheyenne Police Department feared LEAD, “wasn’t holding people accountable and just allow[ed] people to screw up with no consequence.” But many officers gradually saw the positive results. The lieutenant who initially was a skeptic eventually became “all in.” Officers realized that even if individuals were being arrested, they returned to the streets upon release with no support or services in place to help them change behaviors, with many returning to drug use or other destructive activities. LEAD has been a positive step for these individuals. In fact, officers tracked how many contacts they were having with people who were frequently arrested and found after a LEAD referral, officers had not talked to many of these individuals in months. One individual said the LEAD program saved his family member’s life.

Co-responder Model— El Paso County, Colorado

Though police officers generally do not have the training to handle mental health crises, many communities rely upon police to handle such issues. In an effort to support law enforcement in these situations, many communities have implemented co-responder programs. In a co-responder model, a behavioral health clinician (and in some models, emergency medical personnel) accompany law enforcement on patrol.

The sheriff’s office in El Paso County, Co. formed their own co-responder program, the Behavioral Health Connect Unit (BHCON), in 2017 after realizing they needed to reduce jail intake rates. When researching how to reduce the jail population, they realized that a high number of incarcerated individuals suffered from mental health issues. The BHCON team now responds to mental health crisis calls as well as low-level crimes in which it is clear that the individual’s mental health crisis—rather than criminal intent—is the cause for the criminal act.

This immediate response to someone in crisis has resulted in a reduction of expensive arrests and jail admissions as well as a reduction in mandatory psychiatric holds (often referred to as a “72-hour hold”) that are often done in hospitals. In 2021, BHCON responded to 1,154 calls for service. From those calls, BHCON diverted 99 percent from jail and 85 percent from the emergency department. At a time when hospitals are having to divert patients (due largely to COVID-19), saving hospital space is essential. BHCON has also relieved law enforcement of having to rely on the jail as a de facto mental health facility when an individual does not meet the threshold for a mandatory psychiatric hold.

Community Responders— St. Petersburg, Florida

Too often, law enforcement is responding to noncriminal calls where their presence is not necessary. Community Responders (or Civilian Response) takes the co-responder model and removes the police officer entirely. That is, community responders divert individuals from the criminal justice system by having trained, non-law enforcement professionals respond to certain calls for service that do not require a gun and a badge.

This model is the most effective at reserving police resources for the most dangerous crimes while also lowering the potential of escalating a situation by removing the presence of law enforcement. Instead, dispatch alerts community responders who have backgrounds and specific training to help in situations where behavioral health and/or social concerns are the prominent issue.

In 2019, St. Petersburg’s police department partnered with a local nonprofit to form Community Assistance and Life Liaison (CALL). Under the CALL model, clinical staff and community navigators respond to calls such as panhandling, truancy, welfare checks, mental health holds, and disputes between neighbors. When initiating the program, the St. Petersburg Police Department believed such a program could respond to approximately 12,700 calls, diverting individuals from the criminal justice system.

Overcoming Challenges to Diversion

While law enforcement agencies and local elected officials seem to be open to the idea of diversion, many jurisdictions face hurdles when it comes to implementation. Even with proven success, available funding, and law enforcement buy-in, concerns of logistics, safety, and cost can create hurdles. The report focuses on ways these communities have overcome such challenges and shows it is time for other communities, of any political leaning, to support law enforcement in shutting down the inefficient revolving door of the criminal justice system. Ultimately, these pre-arrest diversion programs can and should be implemented to increase public safety, protect personal rights, and save taxpayer dollars.


Diversion Featured Jurisdictions Plea Bargains Pretrial Services July 27, 2022

Reject or Dismiss? A Prosecutor’s Dilemma

Florida State University, Loyola University Chicago

One of the key decisions that prosecutors make is whether or not to file charges against a defendant. Depending on the office, this decision point may be called initial case assessment, screening, review, or filing. Prosecutors, or in some instances paralegals, review evidence provided by law enforcement and decide whether to file any charges in each case.

The core purpose of case screening is to identify and eliminate cases that cannot or should not be prosecuted. In other words, prosecutors have the difficult task of assessing limited case facts in front of them and rejecting cases 1) that do not involve enough evidence to support a conviction, and 2) for which prosecution would not be in the best interest of justice and victims. The decision to reject a case is highly consequential because it means that the defendant will avoid formal charges and conviction.

Cases can also be dismissed after they are filed. While judges can dismiss cases— due, e.g., to missing case processing deadlines or 4th amendment violations—most dismissal decisions are made by prosecutors. Cases may be dismissed by a prosecutor due to evidentiary issues (including victim or witness cooperation) or plea negotiations in other cases, for example.

PPI 2.1 examines the relationship between these two highly discretionary case outcomes: case rejection and case dismissal. While there is no agreed-upon standard for what proportion of referred cases should be rejected for prosecution, or what proportion of filed cases should be dismissed, we suspect that these proportions will vary across jurisdictions and by offense types.

Local criminal justice systems should enable prosecutors to identify dismissible cases as early as possible. Eliminating dismissible cases at the screening stage reduces negative consequences for defendants, victims, and the criminal justice system. For defendants, the declination of dismissible cases reduces unnecessary pretrial detention, disturbances to family life and employment, and chances of wrongful conviction. For victims, identifying dismissible cases at filing minimizes the burden of involvement in the criminal justice system and avoids false expectations, though in some cases prosecution may provide victims with temporary protections they need. For the criminal justice apparatus, declining dismissible cases reduces caseloads and criminal justice expenditure.

In this report, we provide a rare compilation of data on screening and dismissal decisions from jurisdictions across the country. We explore case rejection and dismissal trends in 15 prosecutor’s offices before drilling down in these two important outcomes to examine variations across defendant race and offense type in select jurisdictions.

While reading this report, let’s keep in mind that there are marked jurisdictional differences that influence screening and dismissal decisions. For example, New York prosecutors typically have two days to file a case, while Florida allots several weeks for this decision. Furthermore, jurisdictions have adopted different COVID-19 regulations: some closed certain court operations for months, while others remained open. Yet others quickly moved operations virtually, as is still the case in Hennepin County. Lastly, what is counted as a rejection or dismissal may vary across jurisdictions: a dismissal in the interest of justice in Philadelphia might have been labeled a deferred prosecution in Milwaukee and therefore excluded from dismissal rate calculations. Given these differences, we encourage cross-site learning about rejection and dismissal practices, but not direct comparison.


Diversion Featured Jurisdictions Jail Populations May 26, 2022

Examining The Impacts Of Arrest Deflection Strategies On Jail Reduction Efforts

Shannon Magnuson, Cherrell Green, Amy Dezember, Brian Lovins—Justice System Partners

In 2015, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), a multi-year initiative to reduce populations and racial disparities in American jails. To advance knowledge development grounded in a research agenda that explores, evaluates, and documents site-specific strategies to safely and effectively reduce jail populations and address racial and ethnic disparities, the Foundation engaged the Institute for State & Local Governance (ISLG) at the City University of New York (CUNY) to establish and oversee an SJC Research Consortium. Consortium members are nationally renowned research, policy, and academic organizations collaborating with SJC sites to build an evidence base focused on pretrial reform efforts.

Reducing jail populations and the collateral consequences of the legal system requires jurisdictions to critically examine the practices bringing these populations through the criminal legal system's front door. It requires implementing opportunities to reduce reliance on citation or arrest/booking, especially for populations with serious mental health disorders (SMHD) or substance use disorders (SUD), while also providing individuals the help and referrals they need to be well. Police-led deflection allows police officers discretion to replace arrest with outreach to community-based service providers. In an effort to learn more about how police-led deflection strategies operate, ISLG funded Justice System Partners to conduct mixed-methods studies of deflection strategies in two SJC sites.

Using administrative data from local crisis centers and interviews with police officers in Pima County, AZ and Charleston County, SC, this mixed methods study aimed to understand how deflection of individuals with SMHD/SUD operates in both sites.

Key takeaways include:

  • A parallel treatment revolving door to the legal system revolving door, which acknowledges the challenges of treatment initiation and engagement and provides individuals with SMHD/SUD with a "no wrong door" policy. This creates enhanced opportunities for treatment while eliminating collateral consequences of the legal system and jail for these vulnerable populations.
  • Deflection first, arrest rare as both policy and principle connects vulnerable individuals to the services they need. At the same time, it lessens opportunities for implicit bias and non-clinical judgements about readiness for change to impact the decision to deflect.

In summary, when police departments deflect as the primary response, they no longer make access to treatment conditional or contingent. In both Charleston and Pima counties, an individual can agree to treatment, receive a police transport to the local crisis center, and then at the door decide not to enter with no legal consequences, meaning that the individual is not arrested for refusing to initiate treatment. The findings suggest support for the implementation of deflection strategies, as well as a need for agencies to critically examine inconsistencies in policies that may result in disparate outcomes. Ultimately, the study finds that deflection strategies can be used to facilitate access to the treatment revolving door, rather than the justice system revolving door.

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A New “Tap In Center” Aims To Restore Community Trust

By: Miranda Gibson, Beth Huebner

Community Engagement Courts Diversion Featured Jurisdictions Interagency Collaboration Racial Disparities April 14, 2022

There is new hope in St. Louis County for people afraid to move on with their lives or engage with the criminal justice system because of unresolved warrants, municipal code violations, or having missed a court date.

The center, which is part of a national effort to lower jail populations in jurisdictions across the country as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), aids in responding to concerns raised by the Department of Justice (DOJ) about racial injustice related to municipal court practices in its 2015 investigation into the Ferguson Police Department—which is located in the northern part of St. Louis County.

The DOJ commissioned a report in the wake of the 2015 police killing of Michael Brown, which spawned a series of racial justice protests in Ferguson, attracting international attention. The report found that police practices were often unconstitutional and that municipal court practices imposed substantial barriers to the challenge or resolution of municipal code violations. The court also imposed “unduly harsh penalties for missed payments or appearances,” the report said. It also said the law enforcement practices in Ferguson were driven in part by racial bias and that they disproportionately harmed African American residents. So, it is evident that in St. Louis County any efforts to lower the jail population must go hand in hand with intentional efforts towards racial equity.

Minor legal issues are often part of the reason people “tap out” of trusting the criminal justice system. They stop people feeling proactively and collectively engaged with their community’s safety and security. But the new “Tap In Center” aims to rebuild trust between community members and the criminal justice system, with racial equity at its core. The goal is to help people to have a brief conversation and to help them re-engage with court cases and, more importantly, legal assistance.

Data helped with identifying the location for Tap In. It is taking place in the zip code where most African American people in the county’s jail system live. It is also located in a neighborhood that has historically been underserved in transit access, social services, and community supports. The center aims to take a humanitarian approach to the issues that people face when they must go to a court date every month, often for an extended period of time, until their case might be resolved.

The “Tap In Center” is more than just a place for people to resolve warrants. People can also meet with an attorney, learn their case status, apply for help from a public defender, or even access a cellphone. The center also connects people with other wrap-around services to help them with various challenges in their lives, from temporary housing to clothing to help with food.

Residents have spoken positively about their experience with the center, saying it allows them to continue their lives without fear of bench warrants or fear of arrest for this. Wakesha Cook told St. Louis Public Radio that after getting connected with a public defender and setting up a new court date, “I feel free.”

“When I first got to the center, I was a little nervous since I had this warrant on me, but when I started talking with the people, I was relieved,” said Earnest Holt, another person who visited the center, in an interview with the St. Louis American.

The Tap In Center is a community-based space in a public library. It’s located in a safe, neutral, calm, welcoming spot and is designed to remove barriers and worries that a person might have about going into a courthouse. It welcomes people who come in with warrant issues—people who have historically been wary about engaging with the justice system because they are afraid of, for example, serving jail time.

The center is the result of a partnership between the St. Louis County Library system, The Bail Project, the Missouri State Public Defender, and the St. Louis County Prosecutor, with support from the St. Louis County Courts 21st Judicial Circuit.

Criminal Justice reform strategies in St. Louis County go beyond the Tap In Center. They have focused on systemic case processing, including a population review team, enhanced pretrial reform, pretrial assessment, legal representation, and expedited probation handling. Each of the county’s reform strategies is meant to decrease the disproportionate burden that people of color face in the criminal justice system. St. Louis County is also advised by its own Ethnic and Racial Disparities committee, made up of criminal justice stakeholders, representatives from community advocacy groups, and individuals with lived experiences.

At the time of writing, St. Louis County had reduced the average daily population of its jail by 24% since joining the Safety and Justice Challenge in 2016. Nevertheless, racial disparities do persist. The average daily population of Black people in the jail has reduced by 15% from 2016 to 2021, according to the numbers, and the average daily population of White people has reduced by 41%. Length of stay has reduced for Black individuals who are seeing a 44% decline in the length of stay compared with 41% for White individuals. COVID has slowed progress because of court closures and other related delays. Now that things are reopening, the county is ready to continue its work.

The Tap In Center represents progress and provides motivation for the continued work to be done to address long-standing issues. We hope that other communities across the country will learn from the Tap In Center as they attempt to address their own racial equity issues and more.

Middlesex County, MA

Action Areas Diversion Mental Health

Last Updated

Background & Approach

The Middlesex County Restoration Center Commission was created by the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018 with the goal of researching and developing a model for diverting people with behavioral health conditions from arrest or unnecessary emergency department utilization. The Commission found that disproportionate numbers of people with mental health and substance use needs are (1) interacting with police, (2) incarcerated or detained, (3) utilizing emergency departments for behavioral health assessments even when inpatient hospitalization is not the outcome, and (4) “boarding” (waiting more than 72 hours) in emergency departments while awaiting psychiatric inpatient beds.

As a result of these findings, the Commission designed a model for a Restoration Center pilot in Middlesex County. The model seeks to address the identified gaps and needs in Middlesex County, drawing on best practices and evidence-based programming from around the country. A Restoration Center pilot in Middlesex County will seek to provide urgent and crisis care with core components including triage and assessment with medical clearance, crisis stabilization for both mental health and substance use, respite, and aftercare planning including case management and social determinants of health navigation. The Commission and its partner, Commonwealth Medicine, now seek to identify additional sources of funding and procure a vendor to launch a pilot Restoration Center.

Lead Agency

Middlesex Sheriff’s Office and Massachusetts Association for Mental Health

Contact Information

Catia Sharp
Commonwealth Medicine, a division of UMass Chan Medical School


Massachusetts State Senate Office of Senator Cindy Friedman; Massachusetts State General Court Office of State Representative Kenneth Gordon; Massachusetts Association for Behavioral Healthcare; Bedford MA Police Department; MA Office of the Trial Court; the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) Massachusetts; Massachusetts Executive Office for Health and Human Services; Massachusetts Department of Mental Health; Massachusetts Bureau of Substance Addiction Services