Arizona has the fifth highest imprisonment rate in the United States and its correctional system carries an annual price tag of over $1 billion.

For the last few years, advocates and lawmakers have been trying to reduce the state’s prison population — and in turn, its costs — by introducing legislative reforms. Due in part to backlash from powerful prosecutors, many of the efforts have failed.

A few Arizona counties, however, are showing that reformers need not pass legislation to meet some of their goals. One surefire way to reduce the incarcerated population is to divert individuals away from the criminal system in the first place.

Sometimes referred to as deflection, pre-arrest diversion occurs when an individual comes into contact with law enforcement. Instead of being arrested and charged with an offense, they receive a warning, a civil citation or a referral to other services. Individuals are given access to services that can help them put their lives back on track.

These programs also offer collateral benefits to society. In Yavapai County, police work with crisis response teams and stabilization units to refer those struggling with mental illness or addiction to treatment instead of arresting them.

So far, these efforts have shown great success:

Pre-arrest diversion programs can also address addiction and mental illness by immediately connecting individuals to treatment in the community, thus preventing crime before it occurs. Tucson has already seen some success from this approach. Under the Tucson Police Department’s opioid deflection pilot program, law enforcement officers can divert individuals in the community who are found with small quantities of opiates (2 grams or less) to treatment instead of arresting them.

Additionally, addicted individuals without felony warrants for violent crimes are able to turn their drugs over to designated stations and to refer themselves to treatment without fear of arrest. Within a few short months of the program, over 80 individuals had been directed into treatment. Now, the TPD is working with Pima County to expand the program.

An analysis performed by the Pima County Public Defender’s Office suggests that before it launched its opioid deflection program, more than a fifth of all felony cases in the county involved less than a gram of drugs — roughly equivalent to a packet of Splenda.

Many local prosecutors broadly support diversion programs. Even Maricopa County prosecutor Bill Montgomery, one of the most outspoken critics of sentencing reform, has authorized the use of several post-arrest diversion programs in his county.

Sentencing reform and other legislation-based efforts are still important, but there is more than one way to address Arizona’s incarceration problem. Reformers should work with county practitioners and law enforcement to expand current pre-arrest diversion programs and create new ones.

By connecting individuals to services instead of a jail cell, localities have a chance to both address the root causes of criminal behavior and reduce Arizona’s staggering incarceration rate — not to mention the exorbitant cost of its correctional system.

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