Cover: Diversion Instead of Court

Diversion Instead of Court

Improving Outcomes for People Arrested for Low-level Crimes

Published May 16, 2023

by Shamena Anwar, Melissa M. Labriola, Stephanie Brooks Holliday, Matthew L. Mizel

Download Free Electronic Document

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file 1.2 MB

Use Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10 or higher for the best experience.

Research Brief
Two women attending a group therapy session attentively listen to a fellow attendee share her feelings and experiences. Photo by Gunnar Svanberg Skulason / Getty Images

Photo by Gunnar Svanberg Skulason / Getty Images

Key Findings

  • Improved Arrest Outcomes for Participants Project Reset allowed participants to attend a one-time, two-hour programming session and have their arrest sealed immediately afterwards. If not for the program, these individuals would likely receive an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal (ACD) in the court system. Receiving an ACD requires an arrest-free supervisory period of six months to one year and might require community service completion or additional court appearances. During the supervisory time period of the ACD, the arrests are visible in criminal background checks.
  • Resulted in No Increase in Rearrests The program had no observable impact on the one-year rearrest rates for individuals who participated in the program. This is important because it suggests that the reduction in criminal sanctions did not cause an increase in criminal activity among participants.
  • Viewed Favorably Among Staff and Program Participants Participants voiced very positive reviews of Project Reset, its staff, and the program content, and felt it was a fairer way to address low-level charges. Project Reset staff members noted that participants learned to reflect on their behaviors through this experience and were connected with other needed resources, such as employment services, immigration services, financial services, and mental health services.

The Manhattan District Attorney's Office (DANY) invested $7.76 million in Project Reset with the goal of improving public safety and increasing the fairness and efficiency of the justice system. Project Reset worked to divert adults arrested for low-level crimes into community-based support programs and out of the court system.

Initially, Project Reset was only available to individuals who did not have a criminal record, but the eligibility criteria eventually expanded to include those with prior convictions. The program served 2,149 individuals from February 1, 2018, through January 31, 2021.

Project Reset provides an alternative path to going to court for minor offenses

A flow chart that shows the traditional path of arrest, arraign, and adjudicate, and the alternative path that shows arrest, Project Reset, and arrest sealed

The RAND Corporation evaluated the cost, process, and outcomes of Project Reset to determine whether the diversion program was successful in its goals.

Several Facets of Implementation Contributed to Program Success

  • Participants felt the programming was beneficial in part because of Project Reset staff members' nonjudgmental approach and their ability to develop a rapport with participants.
  • Program providers note that the support, availability, and willingness of the office of the District Attorney (DA) to hear the perspective of service providers was crucial in implementing the program.
  • Participants appreciated the wraparound support provided by Project Reset, including the referrals for outside services.

Recommendations

  • Continue to hire, support, and keep well-qualified staff.
  • Continue to support staff autonomy in administering the program and program flexibility.
  • Continue to connect participants with needed services after completion.

Once you’re arrested, you’re labeled as a criminal. [But with Project Reset], no, you’re just a person who needs help processing what happened … That’s real criminal legal reform, that’s real social justice … My life was saved. My future was protected, and I was given a second chance.

Project Reset participant

A man holding a coffee cup gestures while speaking to a group of people sitting in a circle. Photo by SDI Productions / Getty Images

Photo by SDI Productions / Getty Images

The Evaluation Also Identified Needs and Potential Improvements

Many Referred Participants Could Not Be Contacted

Project Reset providers could not contact a sizeable proportion of people referred to Project Reset by the office of the DA: Providers could not contact 41 percent of those without a criminal record and 76 percent of those with a criminal record. As a result, many eligible individuals who may have directly benefited from Project Reset did not have an opportunity for diversion.

Bar chart that shows percentage of people not reachable, by criminal record:

  • 76% of people with prior convictions were not reachable
  • 41% of people with no prior convictions were not reachable.

Recommendations

  • Work with the New York City Police Department and other stakeholders to strategize how to collect better contact information for participants.
  • Increase public awareness of the program to improve its credibility when programs conduct outreach.

Inequities in Program Completion Might Compound Existing Disparities

The outreach issues referred to above were more concentrated in certain racial and ethnicity groups. While 49 percent of White non-Hispanic individuals referred to Project Reset completed programming, only 36 percent of referred Black Hispanic individuals did. This indicates that Project Reset might unintentionally increase racial and ethnic disparities in the legal system.

Bar chart that shows completion rate, by race/ethnicity:

  • Black Hispanic: 36%/li>
  • Black Non-Hispanic: 40%/li>
  • White Hispanic: 43%/li>
  • White Non-Hispanic: 49%/li>

Recommendations

  • Examine whether the current program eligibility criteria lead to racial and ethnic disparities in program referral rates.

The Program Costs Per-Participant Were Greater Than the Direct Costs of Traditional Court Adjudication

However, costs varied substantially by service provider, and the per-participant costs were less expensive than court adjudication for the provider that served the largest volume of participants. Some program providers were overstaffed because they had fewer participants than anticipated, due in large part to outreach issues and concurrent reforms that reduced the eligible population. One important caveat is that the cost analysis only included money spent by proximal agencies (DA's office, defense lawyers, and the courts), not other benefits that individuals might experience such as those that result from fewer court appearances.

The first bar chart shows costs per-participant were higher for Project Reset than for court:

  • The cost was $869 for Project Reset
  • The cost was $557 for court

But the second bar chart shows that Project Reset was less costly than court under alternative scenarios:

  • The cost was $486 if values from lowest cost provider are used
  • The cost was $501 if all outreach had been successful

Recommendations

  • Reduce program provision costs by lowering the staff-to-participant ratio, which could be accomplished by either reducing the number of staff or increasing program caseloads.
  • Assess whether other populations could benefit from diversion programming.

Research conducted by

This report is part of the RAND research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

This document and trademark(s) contained herein are protected by law. This representation of RAND intellectual property is provided for noncommercial use only. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited; linking directly to this product page is encouraged. Permission is required from RAND to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial purposes. For information on reprint and reuse permissions, please visit www.rand.org/pubs/permissions.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.