The modern movement in criminal justice is to divert non-violent offenders away from incarceration and toward rehabilitative programs that encourage their reintegration into society. Specifically, non-violent drug offenders (like users and low-level dealers) are offered diversion programs, such as drug court, to avoid prison or jail incarceration.
The U.S. Legacy of Mass Incarceration
Approximately 5% of the world’s population calls the United States home, but the U.S. incarcerates nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners. The U.S. imprisons more people than China or Russia – two geopolitical rivals which are more dictatorial than the U.S. The shift toward a touch on crime policy started under President Nixon with his “War on Crime” initiatives shortly after he began dismantling the “War on Poverty” programs pioneered by President Lyndon Johnson.
In the 1980s, President Reagan dramatically expanded Nixon’s policies by instituting a “War on Drugs” that severely punished drug users. Under the war on drug policies, non-violent drug users faced years-long prison sentences and often emerged from their sentences more violent than before. These policies reached their climax under President Clinton and his “tough on crime” bill that further expanded punishments and made it easier for children to be charged as adults. The result is a prison population that mixes non-violent offenders, such as the elderly, children charged as adults, and addicts, with violent unrepentant criminals.
In response to this overcorrection by previous administrations, many states and the federal government are enacting diversion programs. A diversion program is an alternative to incarceration that tries to rehabilitate a criminal offender and reincorporate them into civil society. Diversion programs can target specific populations, like sex workers, veterans, and habitual drunk drivers, or specific crimes, like drug offenses. The diversion program is a series of obligations that the participant must complete to (1) avoid incarceration and (2) release from the program. The program is usually a combination of group and individual therapy, classes, drug testing, treatment, and check-ins with a supervisory officer.
Many drug users and addicts suffer from mental health problems – prisons and jails are filled with people who suffer from various mental illnesses. Drug court is an alternative solution for drug offenders. Drug court combines judges, attorneys, social workers, therapists, doctors, and law enforcement officers into a program surrounding the participant with services to rehabilitate him or her.
Participants who qualify into the program attend therapy, get treatment for their mental health and addiction issues, attend classes, receive housing support, and are required to check-in with law enforcement officers and judicial officials to ensure they are on track. Completing drug court ensures that the participants avoid incarceration and may eventually have the charge expunged from their record.
Applying for Drug Court
Drug court is the exception – not the rule. Offenders who want to get into the program need to apply and get permission from the court. A criminal defense attorney can help offenders get into the program. Offenders need to demonstrate that they are ideal candidates for the diversion program. For example, emphasizing ties to the community, underlying medical conditions, and a nonviolent history.