Don’t convict low-risk offenders, divert them

Mar 24, 2021

Sections Public Policy

Public officials have made substantial efforts over the past decade to reform criminal-justice policy. The general trend in the United States has been towards more leniency, especially for first-time and low-risk defendants.

One popular option is “diversion,” where a police officer, prosecutor, or judge provides an opportunity for an individual charged with a criminal offense to avoid a conviction either by dismissing the charge or by some alternative measure. Despite the growing popularity of such programs, until now not much has been known about the impact of diversion on future behavior.

But research by University of Michigan’s Michael Mueller-Smith and Simon Fraser University’s Kevin T. Schnepel suggests that giving first-time felony defendants an opportunity to avoid a conviction cuts their reoffending rates in half and boosts their quarterly employment rates by nearly 50 percent over a 10-year follow-up period. Those at the highest risk of reoffending—young Black men with prior arrests—gain the most from diversion.

The researchers estimate the causal impact of a diversion program offered to most first-time felony defendants in Harris County, Texas (which covers the Houston area). The program—known locally as “deferred adjudication”—allows individuals to remain free of a felony conviction if they successfully complete a period of community supervision. This diversion option is similar to other programs across the US and in other countries. 

The improved outcomes underline the critical role that avoiding the stigma associated with a felony conviction plays in improving labor market outcomes and reducing offending, the research suggests. 

Several findings point to stigma as a key driver. First, diversion helps participants to work in industries that are less accessible to applicants with felony-conviction records. Second, there are not similar improvements among diverted individuals who already have a felony conviction.

What’s more, both those diverted and those convicted typically face similar community supervision requirements and do not experience significant differences in time spent incarcerated. Therefore, the benefits of diversion do not appear to be heavily influenced by the inability to work or reoffend due to imprisonment. 

Deferred adjudication in Texas represents the largest diversion program in the US, with over 200,000 participants in 2017 (the most recent year with state-wide caseload data available). Based on these findings, this program may serve as a good model for other jurisdictions considering an expansion of diversion options for low-risk or first-time criminal offenders.

This article was produced in collaboration with Microeconomic Insights. For more on this research, see Microeconomic Insights’ full description of it here.