Diversion Programs Save Money, Enhance Public Safety, Say ABA Panelists
In a time when states are desperately looking for ways to save money, programs for pretrial release and diversion are not just conserving funds but also ensuring fairness and enhancing public safety, according to a panel at the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting in New Orleans.
The Feb. 3 CLE program, sponsored by the Criminal Justice Section, the Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, and the Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity, brought together experts from around the country to discuss best practices for diversion programs.
Pretrial release of a non-violent defendant costs the public about $3 a day, while incarceration costs about $100 a day, according to panelist Robert Weisengoff, director of Maryland Pretrial Release Services.
But cost isn’t the only factor driving the increasing use of pretrial release programs for non-violent defendants. “People are far more likely to be found guilty if they are incarcerated,” Weisengoff said. They are also likely to be disqualified from jobs and schools with a felony conviction.
Panelist Graymond F. Martin, the first assistant district attorney for the Orleans Parish in New Orleans, added, “It’s really important that we break a cycle of behavior, and incarceration does not appear to be a meaningful way to do that.”
Panelist Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson of the Louisiana Supreme Court noted several statistics that demonstrate how frequently incarceration is chosen over diversion and other pretrial release programs.
“We have the highest incarceration rate in the country….and for minor, non-violent charges, we jail people at a rate roughly three times the national average,” Johnson said. “The truth is they are going to come back to your community, and we have to think in terms of housing and employment opportunities to assist folks who are returning to the community.”
The Orleans Workforce Development Training and Re-entry Program, a joint effort between Orleans Parish District Court, the Louisiana Deprtment of Public Safety and Corrections, the Louisiana State Penitentiary and the Louisiana Workforce Commission, is a new and innovative model.
Participants receive vocational training in trades including plumbing, carpentry and graphic arts. They can also receive money management advice, substance abuse counseling and job placement before release. About 65 people are enrolled in the pilot program, said panelist Judge Arthur L. Hunter Jr. of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.
“The more we incarcerate…the higher the crime rate tends to go,” said Martin. “People have to hope, they have to believe, that if they go through this program their life will be better.”
The panelists discussed several obstacles, including program costs and political will.
“We shouldn’t be bragging about being tough on crime…but how safe we are,” said Martin.
“We have to have the leaders who have the strength and gumption to do the right thing,” Weisengoff agreed. “Then we will have more time on our dockets and more room in our jails to deal with violent criminals.”