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New Research on Texas Diversionary Programs Shows Lower Crime Rates

by Anthony W. Accurso


A new study using data from the Houston, Texas area shows that the use of diversionary programs results in overall lower crime, including among high-risk demographic groups.

The study, “Diversion in the Criminal Justice System,” authored by Michael Mueller-Smith and Kevin T. Schnepel and published in The Review of Economic Studies, analyzed data resulting from two shifts in Texas law which authorized diversionary programs.

It is often difficult, not to mention ethically suspect, to get politicians to try different criminal justice strategies in a way that produces long-term, reliable data about which approaches produce better outcomes. Mueller-Smith and Schnepel took advantage of two major shifts in criminal justice policies in Texas (occurring in 1994 and 2007) to study the results of these changes.

Their findings were nothing short of astonishing. Individuals who went through diversionary program had 75% fewer reconvictions over a 10-year follow-up period compared to persons who received a traditional felony conviction. Those individuals processed through the traditional felony conviction system went on to receive 1.6 to 1.7 subsequent criminal convictions (on average).

Labor market outcomes were better with diversionary programs, too. The researchers noted a 50% increase in formal employment rates for those subject to diversionary programs.

Most remarkably, young Black men with one or more prior misdemeanor convictions gained the most from felony diversion programs. The results suggest that such interventions can redirect a person’s life trajectory toward a crime-free lifestyle, significantly improving outcomes.

Attitudes toward criminal justice approaches in the U.S. have swung like a pendulum between strong punishment (in the hopes that longer prison terms will act as a deterrence to future criminality) and rehabilitation-oriented modes (which bank on easier reintegration into community and employment to reduce crime).

Diversionary programs―known by various names like drug courts, mental-health courts, or veterans’ courts―work to divert individuals charged with certain crimes (often drug possession offenses) away from the prison system by means of probationary periods and deferred adjudication. Most such programs allow a person to avoid ever being convicted (thus having a felony record for life) by serving a term of probation which, after successful completion, results in a dismissal of the charges.

According to the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, 2019 saw “18 states enact 26 laws creating, expanding, reorganizing, or otherwise supporting diversionary and deferred dispositions, to enable individuals charged with criminal offenses to avoid a conviction record.” Legislative momentum like this shows that some states recognize how well such programs can work.

Colorado enacted its second major revision in three years to its juvenile diversion program, and both Colorado and Tennessee now include even some sex offenses in their diversionary programs. The Texas program is perhaps the most broad of any state, making deferred adjudication potentially available to all felony defendants except those charges with DUI-related offenses, repeat drug trafficking near a school, a range of repeat sex crimes, and murder. Several other states are even sealing records of deferred adjudications after a certain period.

It is exciting to see states pivot away from a “tough on crime” approach to anything else, but it is encouraging to see a trend which respects the humanity of persons who are processed by the criminal justice system. Now that research shows diversionary programs work, hopefully more states will adopt similar tactics.

As one of the authors of this study wrote: “While much has been written about what doesn’t work in criminal justice policy in the U.S., this study provides compelling evidence for a successful intervention that both improves defendant outcomes and saves public resources.”



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