By Caroline Hinnenkamp
Racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system are well documented –– people of color are disproportionately arrested, convicted, and incarcerated.
Diversion efforts –– so named for their approach, which is to divert individuals away from the court process and instead offer opportunities for rehabilitation –– risk perpetuating these same racially disparate trends. Particularly if diversion programs have eligibility constraints based on prior records, people of color are more likely to be denied entry, because they are arrested and convicted at a higher rate than their white counterparts.
Historically, prosecutors tended to justify these constraints as mechanisms used to gauge an applicant’s capacity for rehabilitation, with recidivism (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend) reduction as the central goal of diversion. Diversion was an alternative offered to the lucky few deemed “eligible” or “deserving,” with the implication being that reoffenders have a criminal disposition that is not amenable to rehabilitation.
But programs that use these screening methods tend to overlook the underlying facts and circumstances that might have brought about the applicant’s priors, such as implicit bias in law enforcement or the over-policing of specific communities. Without additional safeguards, the seemingly neutral constraint of “priors” fails to account for relevant pre-existing conditions, and risks barring entry to applicants who might otherwise benefit from diversion.