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Could Justice System Use Diversion, Deflection In More Drug Cases?

At least two-thirds of U.S. prison inmates have substance abuse problems. Would many of them do better outside of custody under criminal justice practices known as diversion or deflection?

Prison sentences are seen by some as a corrective response to addiction. Morgan Godvin, a fellow at The Action Lab at the Center for Health Policy and Law, believes that spending time behind bars makes rehabilitation for addicts more difficult. Critics of the punitive approach to drug offenses urge more use of alternatives to prison, known as deflection.

Both diversion and deflection are used to keep people accused or convicted of a crime out of prison or jail as much as possible.

Deflection has been described as "moving a person away from the justice system and toward community behavioral health and social services without ever being arrested and processed into the criminal justice system."

Some deflection programs have shown evidence of detrimental effects.

Daniel Atzmon, director of a Strategic Targeted Eviction Prevention Program (STEP) and a member of the American Bar Association Diversion Standards Committee, said efforts meant to reduce recidivism are not necessarily beneficial under a criminal justice system that may feature "... racial injustice, collateral consequences, proportionality, and, the broad overcriminalization and incarceration that we've seen this in this country."

Some programs are designed only to give individuals more punishment, which is the opposite of the desired effect. Atzmon said during a symposium on Drugs and Public Safety hosted by Arizona State University that prosecutors might be inclined to file charges against people as a way to get participation in drug court or other programs.

Atzmon also cited the lack of equal accessibility by defendants. He said, "There's the fact that a lot of the gatekeeping eligibility criteria around these programs can be subjective. There can be unequal access and application, especially when it comes to the point of police contact..."

Taleed El-Sabawi, assistant professor of law at Florida International University, coauthored a law that creates non-police behavioral health crisis response teams that focus on deflection to prevent people from entering the criminal legal system.

El-Sabawi said the goal was to decrease the authority of law enforcement officers who lack the skills to handle cases dealing with people suffering from mental illness or drug abuse.

"There's plenty of studies that show that there is an increase in trauma and an increase in the likelihood an individual will be arrested when law enforcement officers are there," El-Sawabi said.

The model is meant to decrease interactions with the criminal legal system and offer other solutions such as utilizing clinicians or those trained in treatment services. "The threat of police officers showing up in an overdose dissuades people from calling 911," El-Sawabi said.

What El-Sawabi said programs lack is the environment of safety, especially within systems of authority. By diminishing the stigma surrounding drug use, El-Sawabi said more people will be prone to utilizing services and programs.

Atzmon believes that "removing police and prosecutors entirely from these broad sets of 911 calls" provides the best opportunities to focus on health care and non-public safety issues.

He urged practicing empathy and caring for people regardless of their situation. Solutions based on the principle of trauma-informed care are critical in decreasing rates of overdoses, Aztmon said.


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