Pre-Arrest Diversion: Where You Live Can Determine Whether You Go to Jail
The study, based on a 50-state survey by the R Street Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based policy think tank, examines how the most common pre-arrest diversion strategies aimed at helping individuals who come into contact with police as a result of mental health or substance abuse issues avoid becoming entrapped in the justice system work in practice.
Until relatively recently, whether someone was arrested for a serious offense or a simple violation of an ordinance, it could set in a motion “a criminal process that exhibits at times all of the control and potential for danger as a runaway locomotive,” the study said.
“While arrest is warranted for many of the more serious transgressions, it is an ill-fitting and disproportionate response to myriad other situations,” said the study. “Yet traditionally, the only other option officially available to officers is to do nothing.”
Map courtesy R Street Institute. See study for additional interactive maps
But the authors, Lars Trautman and Jonathan Haggerty, both senior fellows of criminal justice and civil liberties policy at the R Street Institute, said that even within those jurisdictions allowing protective custody, there are wide differences in the amount of discretion allowed authorities.
Changes in state legislation, as well as increased funding for non-jail alternatives, could correct the differences in responses, the authors said.
“Just as pressing, but practically more difficult, is the elimination of other jails and correctional institutions as possible detention sites whenever feasible,” they added. “An individual in protective custody is suffering from a health crisis, not a criminal one.”
But “the near universal adoption of these laws in so short a period, however, should not be confused with unanimity of support,” the authors observed, noting that resistance from “tough on crime” legislators has delayed implementation or watered down the legislation in many states.
The authors said their comprehensive analysis of pre-arrest diversion strategies shows they are “increasingly popular” at the local level; but while the trend across many states has been to continue to expand their range, the “stunning variety of statutory permutations” has led to gaps and variations in the implementation of each policy tool.
“The success of local diversion will turn not just on whether state policy changes, but how,” the authors said.
The authors argued that further research of those gaps is crucial to developing strategies that can work for all Americans wherever they live.
The survey of the differences they discovered should be considered a “map of areas of improvement as well as a source of inspiration,” the study said.
“No state may have yet figured out how to create the most conducive environment possible for pre-arrest diversion and crisis response, but in their divergent approaches they present a wealth of promising options.”