Diversion programs work – when they don’t sabotage participants

By Tom Gordon

In a state where overcrowded and violence-ravaged prisons have been a long-standing problem, there are alternatives to prison – diversion is the common generic term – that are supposed to take some offenders out of the system and provide them with the help they need. they need to stay out. These diversions take the form of entities such as drug courts, veterans courts and community corrections.

In many cases, these alternatives to prison are successful. But a new report says that in far too many cases, they hinder rather than help those they are meant to serve.

“The perverse reality is that diversion programs actually lead to many behaviors and circumstances that they were designed to mitigate,” says “In Trouble: How the Promise of Diversion Clashes With the Reality of Poverty, Addiction and Structural Racism in Alabama’s Justice System ”.

The report, prepared by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, was released on Monday, and it is based in part on surveys and interviews in 2018 and 2019 with more than 1,000 Alabamians who participated in various diversion programs. . It calls on state lawmakers not only to fully fund diversion programs, but to adopt other measures to make them more accessible to participants, streamline their rules and regulations and tailor their requirements, including fines, to financial needs and the family obligations of each participant.

“Diversion could be a useful tool in addressing the human rights crisis in our prisons and the public health crisis in our communities,” the report said. “But if they are to serve those who need them most, programs must be accountable, accessible and properly funded.”

The need for diversion reform was a topic that came up last year at meetings of the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy. Leah Nelson, research director for Alabama Appleseed, spoke at a session in December about the just released Appleseed report and the burdens faced by participants in the diversion program.

“What we have learned is that these programs are too expensive for the poor who lack wealth to participate without making outrageous sacrifices,” Nelson said in his statement to the study group. “They are not designed to adapt to the everyday realities of people with jobs, children or other obligations.”

According to “In Trouble,” most of those polled for the report were poor, with 55% earning less than $ 14,999 per year. “The median amount they said they paid for the hijacking was $ 1,600, or more than 10% of their total income” and “only one in ten had ever been offered a fee reduction or waiver of fees. charges due to his inability to pay, ”the report states. As a result, “to cover their embezzlement payments, more than eight in ten gave up a need like food, rent or prescription drugs,” and almost half resorted to payday loans or Property titles.

The report also states that one in five people in the survey “had been turned down for a diversion program because they could not afford it” and “about the same proportion had been kicked out of a diversion program. because she couldn’t keep pace. Payments. “

In addition, “more than one in five had to refuse an opportunity to participate in diversion because of work obligations, childcare or school obligations” and these same obligations forced one in five to leave a home. diversion program. In addition, “almost a quarter have dropped out of a diversion program because they lacked transportation.”

These hardships can send people back to prison, with sometimes fatal consequences.

“In 2019 alone, there were 29 preventable deaths in prison from homicide, suicide or drug overdose,” the Appleseed report says. “Some of those prisoners were people who were only in jail because they couldn’t afford to be a diversion.”

The Alabama court system has basically two types of diversion programs – pre-trial or pre-trial and post-trial or post-trial. The drug court is an example of a pre-adjudication program. Adult drug courts now operate in 55 of Alabama’s 67 counties; seven of the courts serve more than one county. As the Appleseed Report notes, a drug court allows people to avoid trial and go through a supervised program that includes drug treatment or screenings, education classes, and regular court appearances. Under a 2013 state law, local prosecutors can set up such pre-trial programs.

Community corrections, where a person convicted of a crime completes their sentence outside of prison, is an example of a post-trial program. The program often includes requirements such as those of a drug court.

In its “In Trouble” report, Alabama Appleseed cites the experiences of various people with diversion programs, including “Ryan”, a man described by Nelson as “illustrating the shortcomings of the system as it currently exists.”

Too expensive to continue

In remarks to the governor’s criminal justice panel, Nelson said Ryan, on probation for a previous drug possession conviction in Chilton County, had “reoffended” in Shelby County and was referred to his drug court, “widely recognized as one of the toughest in the state.” Ryan went to rehab, “got his life back on track,” Nelson said, “but he didn’t understand that he was still supposed to check in with his probation officer in Chilton. He thought his supervision had been consolidated. to Shelby.

After learning there was an arrest warrant for Chilton, Nelson said, Ryan surrendered and spent three months in jail. He is now absent and struggling “to provide for himself and his young son,” and his payments for court fees, fines, drug tests and supervision costs take up nearly half of his total. his monthly income.

A woman named “Amber” is also cited in the report. According to a summary of her story by Carla Crowder, executive director of Appleseed, Amber left Tutwiler Women’s Prison last September “to return home to Madison County and care for her teenage sons.”

“Amber was released to community correctionshad to pay $ 290 per month for electronic monitoring and more for drug tests, court fees, fines and fees. She found a $ 250 / week job, but spends about a third of her monthly income on electronic surveillance and drug-only court costs.. During our last conversation, she wasn’t sure she could track the payments. Failure meant a quick return to prison.

Another example from the report is that of “Bernard,” who wants to get a job to support his family, but be in both the Jefferson County Community Corrections Program and the city’s municipal drug court. of Birmingham – and being subject to their various demands – made her job search difficult.

The report is replete with recommendations for state legislators, courts and those who administer diversion programs. Recommendations to lawmakers include full funding of “diversion and alternatives to incarceration programs”, funding of mental health courts through the Ministry of Mental Health “to divert mentally disordered offenders from prisons and prisons while providing expanded community psychiatric services “and passing legislation” to combine and simplify the overlapping, inconsistent and overlapping acts under which most state diversion programs operate.

The report, which cites the example of an Etowah County resident having to travel more than 360 miles round trip to attend a monthly drug court session in Marengo County, states that lawmakers should allow those in diversion to participate in programs “where they have homes, family and / or social support, not where they have committed an offense. He also urges lawmakers to” order the creation of a system “whereby” judges can easily see the totality of an individual’s obligations, including court debts and participation in diversion, and require the participation of all jurisdictions, including municipal courts.

The state study group made similar recommendations

Meanwhile, the Governor’s Criminal Justice Task Force, whose members included Attorney General Steve Marshall, Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn and six state lawmakers, released its own report earlier this month. -this. Among other things, the report called for sentencing reforms, more funding for inmate education and mental health programs, hiring more correctional officers, more flexible hours. for parole officers to accommodate the schedules of those they supervise and more help for inmates. to get the government documents they need to drive or find a job.

The report also contained a section on diversion programs.

In a letter accompanying this report and in language reflecting some of Leah Nelson’s comments, group chairman Champ Lyons said the Legislature should establish a commission to “deepen” into the problems with diversion programs so that these issues “can be comprehensively addressed in the 2021 legislative session.

Diversion programs “have enormous potential for the state as they refer low-level offenders to programs that address the underlying factors that contribute to criminal activity – substance abuse, lack of education and lack of employment” , wrote Lyons. “There are several alternative courts and diversion programs across the state that work extremely well and help distract people from further illegal activity.

“But in many places,” Lyons added, “these programs are unavailable, underfunded, or just inaccessible. There are also serious concerns about the “pay to play” aspect of some of these programs. “

While acknowledging the need for diversion reforms, the former Alabama Supreme Court justice said the study group recommends legislation requiring programs to do “better data collection” on their activities. and their results. However, he said the group was unable “to identify a proposal that would comprehensively address the challenges of improving quality and access”.

In an email, Lyons said the system needed uniform standards to work, but “solutions in this area are complicated by the fact that pre-trial diversion and specialized courts are each separate programs operating under branches. independent of state government, executive and judiciary. And add to that the multitude of distinct local entities which is a by-product of having 41 judicial circuits. “

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