Abstract: National Landscape of Police-Assisted Diversion Programs: A Qualitative Study Examining an Alternative Approach to Policing and Public Safety (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

National Landscape of Police-Assisted Diversion Programs: A Qualitative Study Examining an Alternative Approach to Policing and Public Safety

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Independence BR B, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Caroline Harmon-Darrow, MSW, PhD Candidate, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Daria Mueller, MSW, PhD Student, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI
Ashley Jackson, MSW, Doctoral Student, Washington University in Saint Louis, St Louis, MO
Nancy Franke, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Jenny Afkinich, PhD, Lead Research Analyst, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Corey Shdaimah, PhD, Professor, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Background and Purpose: Scholars in a variety of disciplines have explored police practices, focusing particular attention on advocacy and reform efforts. In the wake of recent killings by police, ensuing protests, and the rising Black Lives Matter movement, there is renewed awareness of and interest in alternative policing practices and options to reallocate funds away from law enforcement and toward community-based programs and services. Criminal legal system alternatives, such as police-assisted diversion programs (PADP), prioritize community-based services over the traditional criminal legal system response of arrest, detention, and incarceration. Simultaneously, most remain nested in criminal legal systems. The primary aim of this study was to explore the national landscape of pre-arrest and pre-booking diversion initiatives.

Methods: To achieve the study aim, the authors conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews with local program directors, statewide implementers, and national organizers of PADPs across the country (N=24). Authors examined key features and outcomes of PADPs and how programs and community contexts vary. Respondents were identified using a purposive and snowball sampling approach. Interviews were conducted and recorded via a virtual meeting platform. The research team prioritized collaborative research methods, including regular peer debriefing. Transcripts were analyzed using a consensus process for identifying emerging codes and themes.

Results: Results demonstrate that PADPs often use a harm reduction approach, providing ongoing case management and connection to safe housing and treatment. Programs adapted to local needs and resources (e.g., funding sources, eligibility criteria for diversion, criminal justice leadership turnover, available services, staffing models, and political will). Across PADPs, outcomes included reduced recidivism, emergency room visits and transports, and overdose deaths, as well as client progress in achieving greater safety, housing stability, employment, and decreased substance misuse. Findings also highlight the influence of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and increased attention paid to racialized police violence. Specifically, some programs decreased the role of police in favor of models that emphasize a community referral process, while others retained a more traditional law enforcement-centered diversion model.

Conclusions and Implications: PADPs have increasing importance as a primary method of smart decarceration will involve reducing the numbers of people who formally enter the criminal legal system. This research sheds light on local needs and contexts, strategies for addressing challenges, promising outcomes, and future directions within PADPs. This study is the first known national qualitative study to examine this new public safety model that limits arrest and centers public health and human dignity.