Despite an unprecedented drop in Los Angeles’s total jail population following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the county saw an increase in the percentage of people of color and people suffering from mental illnesses behind bars. Prompted by such disparities, L.A. County has worked to develop alternative justice responses capable of addressing the needs of these vulnerable populations based on the principle of “Care First, Jails Last.” In a new report, the Center for Court Innovation’s West Coast Initiatives team shares valuable lessons derived from its experience in helping to plan and launch equitable early diversion programs in Los Angeles.
Since 2019, the Center has collaborated with L.A. County to launch two initiatives—one court-based, one based in law enforcement stations—aimed at reducing the county’s jail population by connecting participants to safe, appropriate, and voluntary community-based care. These programs, as well as the Center’s extensive experience in operating diversion initiatives, form the basis for the insights shared in the report.
The first section of the report offers tips for developing the essential components of an early diversion program. Among other advice, it urges diversionary efforts to prioritize individual needs over criminal charges when determining eligibility, and to adapt to local cultures across program sites. The second section includes recommendations for using data to promote equitable practices for diversion. Data collection, during program planning and performance alike, can be a powerful tool in making sure that the desired populations are being served.
While successful diversion programs can safely reduce the use of incarceration, special care must be taken to ensure that these programs are carried out in an equitable way. It is hoped that the insights of this new report can provide guidance for diversion initiatives in their efforts to bridge the gap between legal systems and communities while caring for vulnerable populations.
A shorter one-page version of the report can be found here.