In Law, What Is a Diversion?

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  • Written By: J. D. Kenrich
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 15 January 2020
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Crowded dockets and the expense of criminal prosecutions have led court systems worldwide to seek creative ways of dealing with certain classes of offenders. The desire to promote rehabilitative strategies, rather than strictly punitive ones, has also led correctional professionals to develop innovative ways to address those guilty of breaking the law. Diversion initiatives are programs in which the criminal cases of young offenders and those accused of non-violent alcohol, drug and other low-level crimes are removed from the courts entirely, pending successful fulfillment of conditions that may include addiction treatment, community service, victim impact education and restitution. Completion of this type of program often results in the original charges being dropped altogether, while failure to comply with program terms may lead to the charges' reinstatement and possible enhancement.

Pretrial diversion programs intended for drug and alcohol offenders frequently involve a treatment and education component. Individualized substance abuse assessments are often performed on participants and a schedule of mandatory classes and treatment sessions imposed. Many law enforcement professionals favor this type of alternative solution because it can help address the root causes of addiction and criminal behavior while permitting certain classes of offenders to avoid the stigma and lasting impact of formal charges or a conviction.


Community service is often a significant element of court diversion programs. The nature and duration of the unpaid work required will be determined by the diversion program administrator but can include work intended to benefit groups disproportionately impacted by the underlying offense. All community service hours and duties prescribed by the approved diversion program must be completed to prevent the case from being returned to the court's jurisdiction.

Many diversion programs also require payment of restitution to the victim of the relevant offense. Payments may be directed to the actual parties harmed by the offender's actions or they may be remitted to a local or regional fund broadly designated for victim compensation. The type and amount of restitution included in this type of program will depend on the nature of the crime involved, and full payment generally must be made for successful program completion to be achieved.

It is not uncommon for prosecuting authorities to give defendants the opportunity to participate in a diversion program when it is clear they meet the jurisdiction's existing standards for such alternative case handling. In other instances, defense lawyers may propose diversionary treatment to prosecutors during the early stages of investigation, perhaps prior to the filing of any charges. By fulfilling all conditions of the program and having no further negative contact with law enforcement for a specified period of time, youthful and non-violent offenders can take advantage of court diversion alternatives and avoid the most damaging consequences of criminal prosecution.


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