If the state of Maryland is serious about reducing crime, we need to be more proactive about preventive programs and seriously consider diversion programs for our youth. The recent ACLU report on arrests for marijuana possession and The Sun's June 8 editorial "Maryland's New Jim Crow" have brought much needed attention to mass incarceration in the Maryland criminal justice system. The ACLU's report raises broader questions about criminal justice policies in our state. Is mass incarceration for petty offenses a good use of public resources? Should police and prosecutors focus on prosecuting minor offenders, or should they focus their limited resources on targeting violent criminals who commit serious offenses? Empirical evidence shows that diversion programs are a cost effective way to rehabilitate minor offenders and prevent people from suffering the devastating effects of having a criminal record.
Diversion programs are community based justice programs that provide an alternative to prosecution for non-violent offenders. They allow qualifying offenders to accept responsibility and be held accountable for their actions while avoiding the stigma of a criminal record. Diversion programs offer the opportunity for offenders to earn dismissal of criminal charges by completing various conditions, including participating in substance abuse and mental health treatment programs, paying restitution to victims of their crimes and performing community service. These programs are designed to help rehabilitate defendants before they develop patterns of long-term, destructive behavior. If a candidate fails to successfully complete the diversion program, his or her case is returned to court for prosecution.
For the past eight years, I have volunteered as legal counsel for a Prince George's County-based community diversion program sponsored by the non-profit organization, Community Public Awareness Council (CPAC). More than 1,800 people have successfully completed CPAC's diversion programs and CPAC reports a success rate of 87 percent. This is consistent with other diversion programs throughout Maryland that have reported success rates in excess of 80 percent, which means that less than 20 percent of program participants were ultimately charged with a crime or rearrested for new crimes.
Many of the individuals who participated in CPAC's programs had undiagnosed mental health and substance abuse problems and were able to get treatment as a result of participating in the diversion programs. CPAC and other diversion programs require parents of at-risk youths to play an active role in the treatment and rehabilitation process.
Diversion programs make sense from a purely economic standpoint. According to the Maryland Division of Correction, the average annual cost to house each inmate in our state prisons is $38,654. The average yearly cost for an individual to participate in a community diversion program ranges from $2,000-$5,000 . Throughout the United States, these programs have proven effective in saving taxpayer dollars, rehabilitating at-risk individuals, reducing the size of the prison population and improving public safety. Many diversion programs in Maryland are successful at rehabilitating minor offenders but have limited impact due to a lack of funding. Instead of investing resources on the back end to incarcerate individuals, we should invest resources on the front end to rehabilitate minor offenders and divert them out of the criminal justice system in the first place.
Del. Aisha Braveboy, a Democrat, represents District 25 in Prince George's County. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.