Increased use of diversion is a key feature of America’s new age of criminal justice reform. Whether administered informally by prosecutors or under the auspices of courts, diversionary dispositions aim to resolve cases without a conviction—and in so doing, conserve scarce legal resources, provide supportive services, reduce recidivism, and provide defendants with a chance to avoid the lingering stigma of a conviction record.
Despite the growing popularity of diversion in this country and around the world, there has been little empirical study of its impacts on future behavior. Until now.
By conjecture, the opportunity to steer clear of a criminal conviction might affect future behavior in opposing ways. An optimist might expect that diversion would motivate a person to avoid returning to court in the future, while preserving the ability to hold lawful employment, especially in places where criminal background checks are used to screen applicants. A skeptic might argue that diversion represents a lesser punishment that could increase offending by reducing either a specific or general deterrence effect.
Without research showing the likelihood of one or the other outcome, policymakers, prosecutors, and judges have had to operate on untested assumptions, hoping for the best. This vacuum has now been filled by a new study of Texas’ court-managed diversion program by two economists, which should be welcome news for the optimists.