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Diversion programs can reduce mass incarceration in Travis County

Monday, December 20, 2021 by Seth Smalley

At Thursday’s work session, the Travis County Commissioners Court fielded discussion about the benefits of, and recent updates to, several jail diversion programs underway in Travis County. Such programs included pretrial and pre-charge diversion programs, as well as a DWI diversion program. Roughly 500 people have been accepted to the programs so far, according to County Attorney Delia Garza.

“I’m confident that our new programs combined with (county commissioners’) continued efforts to invest in housing and support services for families in need enhance the safety of the community,” Garza said.

According to Denise Hernandez, deputy director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the County Attorney’s Office, the objective of the programs are to reduce mass incarceration via early case review, pre-charge diversions, and pretrial diversions.

“That’s essentially diversion that’s happening before a case is filed,” Hernandez told commissioners.

Delia Garza explained to commissioners the county recently has significantly expanded eligibility requirements for pretrial diversion programs.

“Frankly, what’s the point of having a program if very few people are eligible for it.” Garza said. “Research and studies show that when we can divert someone out of the criminal justice system at the misdemeanor level, especially without adding a conviction to the record, our community is actually safer because they are less likely to reenter the criminal justice system.”

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, those with mental illness and substance use disorder are three to four times more likely to be incarcerated, as well as drastically more likely to be re-arrested compared to those without the conditions.

Hernandez also cited a general study to commissioners which indicated that jail diversion has a “clear impact” on reducing drug and alcohol use. It found drug and alcohol use dropped by 50 percent for those enrolled in diversion programs, while 44 percent of diverted clients recidivated less. (Other studies showed future convictions fell by 75 percent and a Harris County study on a diversion program for felons showed that employment rose by 50 percent.)

“It improves the stability of the person in the program, meaning they have an ability to connect to food and housing, and to other social services they may need.” Hernandez said. “It reduces recidivism and improves the mental health outcomes of individuals in the program.”

There are attorney-led as well as court-led diversion programs in the county. The judge-led programs include the DWI program, led by Judge Elisabeth Earle, while attorney-led programs include the Felony Pretrial Diversion Program, intended to help defendants charged with felony offenses move beyond the justice system. The programs are built to connect people to the diversion services that would benefit them most, according to Hernandez.

Commissioner Jeffrey Travillion asked whether job training and housing are offered by the current slate of diversion programs. Some of the diversion programs  including Project Engage, which is intended for younger defendants do offer job training, according to Assistant District Attorney Bianca Garcia.

“These kids can get on the right track and avoid a conviction, so that this won’t hold them back from housing, employment, and (will) not stand in the way of their future,” Garcia said.

“There are disproportionate collateral consequences for people who are pushed through the criminal justice system,” Hernandez said.

Photo by WhisperToMe [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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