The purpose of front-end diversion is to increase public safety by averting incarceration and its negative consequences for appropriate persons and offenses, in favor of options that present a minimal risk to public safety and a greater opportunity for rehabilitation. Here are six questions you should ask yourself as you plan or seek to improve a structured decision-making tool or process based on risk assessment.
Who should be eligible for diversion options, in terms of risk level?
The degree of risk that a person will reoffend informs whether they can be diverted safely, and how restrictive that diversion option may need to be. Many diversion candidates beyond those scoring as low risk have a good chance to be successful, provided they receive interventions to address criminogenic needs such as substance use disorders or criminal thinking.
What factors other than risk should also be considered?
Diversion decision-making often incorporates two main factors: the individual’s likelihood (risk) to reoffend and the severity of the alleged instant offense.
The decision-making matrix from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (see below) is a good example of how diversion eligibility can be established and different diversion tracks can be set systematically.
Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Disposition Recommendation Matrix
(Staff should begin with the least restrictive setting within a particular disposition category. See Structured Decision-Making guidelines.)
In the Florida DJJ example, risk level was assessed using the Community Positive Achievement Change Tool (C-PACT). As much as possible, it is helpful to use the matrix or other decision-making tool to incorporate the key factors that should inform decision-making. The simpler the tool, the more easily it can be applied. Bear in mind that a risk assessment tool itself incorporates a number of different risk factors, such as past criminal history and prior performance under community supervision.
Is it clear how the preferred approach varies by risk level?
An advantage of decision aid such as the example matrix is that there is a clear preferred outcome for each cell. The available diversion options include alternatives to arrest in the case of the lowest-risk youth facing very minor charges, at the upper left portion of the matrix. To the lower right, where risk is higher and the severity of charge is greater, there are different options but they all involve some form of correctional control, from probation to secure placement.
Does the framework support intervention tailored to risk level, to maximize public safety?
Consistent with the risk principle, diversion options should match an individual’s risk to reoffend. Low-risk people with minimal prior justice involvement and low levels of treatment or intervention need are best served by diversion options with minimal, if any, compliance requirements. For people at greater risk to reoffend and/or with substantial needs such as substance use disorders, access to effective treatment and service options may be critical to diversion success. Therefore, a structured decision-making framework around diversion should encourage light touch interventions for lower-risk people that don’t “widen the net” by placing them under stricter conditions than standard justice processing.
Are there categories of people for whom the intended intervention is insufficiently available?
A decision-making guide like the Florida matrix indicates what a jurisdiction wants to have happen. However, the available options for diversion determine whether the preferred option is actually available. How many people with substantial needs can be diverted depends on the availability of interventions to manage those needs in the community. In a structured decision-making model like this, additional needs and behavioral health assessments might be used to determine the right program placement and approach for within the range of options indicated by the matrix.
Have you established performance measures tied to the structured decision-making framework?
This type of structured decision-making can guide monitoring of two important aspects of system performance: 1) divergence from the placements suggested by the matrix, and 2) effectiveness of the interventions.
- Are individuals being assigned to diversion options of various kinds suggested by the matrix? There will always be some use of overrides of the suggestions of a matrix such as this, reflecting specific circumstances or intelligence that is not sufficiently captured by the risk assessment or the charge. However, high override rates indicate that practitioner agreement with the structured decision-making framework is lacking, and either consensus needs to be re-established (or established), or the matrix itself should be adjusted.
- What are the defendant success/failure rates for each cell of the matrix? Tracking diversion outcomes by matrix category allows a jurisdiction to monitor whether the levels of sanction, supervision and programming being used are producing acceptable success rates.
The Florida DJJ did a validation analysis of the matrix examining all of these issues, finding high levels of dispositions within the ranges suggested by the matrix, and better outcomes for youth disposed as recommended by the matrix than for those whose dispositions fell outside that range.