What are Diversionary Programs?

K. Wascher

Diversionary programs are alternative sentencing structures adopted and maintained by a court system. The main purpose of diversionary programs is to provide first-time or juvenile offenders the opportunity to rehabilitate their criminal record and avoid spending time in jail. While diversionary programs vary depending upon jurisdiction, many of these programs involve supervision of the defendant and an educational or community service component. Most defendants are able to have their criminal records expunged of a crime after the successful completion of a diversionary program.

A diversion program may be offered to those charged with shoplifting.
A diversion program may be offered to those charged with shoplifting.

The traditional process for entering a criminal defendant into a diversionary program involves several procedural steps. Generally, after a defendant has been arraigned or informed of the charges against him, the government will inform him or his attorney of the availability of a diversionary program. The defendant will have the option of accepting the terms of the program offered or proceeding to trial. Defendants who choose to complete the program must comply with the specific stipulations of the offer. These stipulations may include meeting periodically with a probation officer, completing an educational course, participating in a community service project, and refraining from illegal activities.

There are numerous arguments surrounding the potential benefits of using diversionary programs to handle first-time offenders and juveniles that commit non-serious crimes such as simple assaults or petty thefts. The main argument is that these types of programs enable court systems to operate more efficiently. They also free up room in local and regional penitentiaries to incarcerate offenders who commit crimes that are more serious in nature. Many proponents of diversionary programs also claim that such programs decrease the number of subsequent offenses by first-time offenders through educational and community service programs.

Some people oppose diversionary programs, however. Opponents of the programs believe that releasing criminal defendants without consequences ultimately increases the rate of subsequent criminal offenses. They say that the leniency of diversionary programs will cause defendants or potential offenders to view the court system less seriously if they know that they will not be required to serve time in prison or sustain a criminal record for a first-time offense. Additionally, while diversionary programs may increase the efficiency of court proceedings, repeat offenders will place additional strain on the system over time, considering that they could have been incarcerated rather than being released to commit subsequent criminal acts.

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