By Anna Johansson • November 19, 2018•Careers
Not every law degree leads to big law. No, for some of us, that training helps us make a difference in other ways, including through advocacy work. By working with diversion programs, for example, a growing group of legal professionals are finding ways to minimize inequitable consequences across the legal system and help marginalized individuals get back on the right track.
How Diversion Works
Diversion programs are increasing in popularity across the United States, addressing issues like alcohol and drug use, driving offenses, and even shoplifting and they typically target first time, low-level offenses. Additionally, among juvenile offenders, diversion programs also help connect individuals with meaningful, community-based treatment, such as substance abuse counseling, mental health services, job training, and parenting skills classes. When successful, these programs help stop the cycle of offense and incarceration before it starts. The weeks and months after a first offense are the most powerful moments for intervention.
Building Better Policy
From the perspective of the legal profession, advocacy and diversion work is primarily about developing better policies. For example, individuals are frequently punished for drug possession due to uneven laws; what’s permissible in one state can lead to a possession charge a few miles away if the individual crosses state lines. Advocating for consistency, specifically for medical substance use, is one step towards reducing unfair sentencing, particularly since people of color and lower income individuals are more likely to be affected by unequal enforcement.
Focusing on policy work also allows legal professionals to focus on enforcement data, ongoing studies of diversion programs, and other research into the best ways to address criminal behavior. For example, in Oregon, those with first time DUI charges can petition to enter a DUI diversion program by first entering a plea of Guilty or No Contest; participants give up their right to a jury trial in order to receive alcohol use assessment and treatment. Experienced lawyers can support such petitions, but it’s typically non-practicing lawyers who do the underlying work to develop such diversion programs.
Focusing On Results
As lawyers, our job is to get at the facts, but unless we’re prosecutors, we’re also tasked with building the best possible cases for our clients, regardless of innocence or guilt. When working in advocacy, though, results are the only thing that matter, and this is why diversion stands out. According to a report by the Center for Prison Reform, diversion programs excel for reasons including but not limited to: the ability to prevent offenders from learning further criminal behavior from each other – the ideas that prison is “Crime University;” eliminating the practice of removing non-violent offender from society; minimizing prison overcrowding; and increasing the likelihood that participants will have their mental health needs met.
Diversion programs also address the root cause of many non-violent offenses, going well beyond mental illness. In Seattle, for example, studies showed that many people charged with driving while licenses suspended (DWLS) were low-income individuals who couldn’t afford to pay tickets or lacked a stable address. Rather than penalizing these individuals, eliminating the charges via diversion programs helped them get their lives back on track. It’s almost impossible to find a job and get out of poverty without a car, yet the current model punishes low-income individuals via this necessary tool.
Ultimately, regardless of the variety of diversion program, the goal is to help rehabilitate participants in a way that opens doors to the future, rather than trapping them in the past. While a criminal charge can make employment a reach, diversion programs encourage offenders to find meaningful work and contribute to society. As in so many other cases, helping people find a way to participate in the life of the community is the best way to prevent crime. Lawsuits and criminal cases can’t do that, but advocacy changes the stakes for everyone involved.