Prison Policy Initiative Researcher Argues Racial Disparity in Diversion Programs

By Leslie Acevedo

NORTHAMPTON, MA Prison Policy Initiative published an argument this week suggesting diversion works but is routinely denied to people of color.

Leah Wang, a research analyst for the Prison Policy Initiative, notes the report focuses on the stage of the criminal legal proceedings at which diversion happens, with the earliest diversions offering the most benefits.

Wang adds that diversion programs are often structured in ways that extend racial disparities, as policy makers involved in implementing diversion programs should consider the cost, eligibility requirements, and discretionary decision-making.

Wang notes the association between income, race, and ethnicity to pay for diversion means people of color are unable to participate.

“People of color who are facing criminal legal system involvement are systematically denied or excluded from diversion opportunities. This inequity has a ripple effect, contributing to the troubling racial disparities we see elsewhere, in pretrial detention, sentencing, and post-release issues like homelessness and unemployment,” explained Wang.

“We conclude that policymakers and practitioners involved in diversion programming must address the cost, eligibility requirements, and discretionary decision-making to offer these vital opportunities in a racially equitable way,” Wang adds.

Wang suggests diversion programs have narrow eligibility requirements, excluding people of color who are oftentimes criminalized, adding, the requirements exclude “Black people, who are arrested as youth, stopped by police generally, and jailed and imprisoned at higher rates than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States.”

Wang, noting research shows few diversion programs require participants have a specific family structure at home, adds, “Black youth are more likely to live in single-parent, multi-generational, or blended households that do not meet these criteria, leading to a baseless finding of ineligibility,” leading to a criminal path and hurting their futures.

Wang argued diversion decisions held by police, prosecutors, judges, and decision makers may leave the accused vulnerable to racial biases, adding, “Research has shown that prosecutors offer diversion to Black defendants much less often than white defendants with similar legal circumstances.

“Evidence also points to discretion working against Black youth and their families when it comes to diversion,” said Wang.

“Diversion alone isn’t enough to address the harms of racialized mass criminalization,” added Wang, offering steps to help fight against racial disparity which include expanding criteria eligibility, making diversion programs more financially accessible to all, and mitigating collateral consequences of a conviction.

Wang said she hopes research and data collection on racial and ethnic groups in diversion must extend beyond two people of color, including other demographics.

“Failure to acknowledge and address inequities can exacerbate existing racial divides—saving the harshest aspects of the system for people of color while providing easier pathways for white people entangled in the criminal legal system,” warned Wang.

Wang added, “The best diversion programs are actually investments in social services and non-law enforcement responses to community needs, keeping people out of the criminal legal system entirely,” prioritizing community well-being and public safety over punishment, as it can reduce mass criminalization in America.

About The Author

Leslie Acevedo is a senior undergraduate student at California State University, Long Beach, majoring in Criminology/Criminal Justice. She intends to pursue a Master's Degree in Forensic Science or Criminal Justice. She aspires to become a forensic investigator.

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