Last week the Centre for Justice Innovation (CJI) published a timely report on the evidence for the pre-court diversion of adults.
Pre-court diversion seeks to offer a swift and meaningful response to low-level offending. The approach has been long recognised as a significant part of the youth justice system. Recently, interest in pre-court diversion for arrested adults has been re-awakened, with the Lammy Review recommending trials of new forms of ‘deferred prosecution’ and recent high-profile projects such as Operation Turning Point in the West Midlands and Checkpoint in Durham. A 2018 survey by the National Police Chiefs’ Council revealed that a majority of police forces across England and Wales are engaged in using or developing pre-court diversion for adults as well as finding both a wide variety in practice and in the terms used to describe pre-court diversion.
Several of the Police Services I have worked with recently (including Surrey & Sussex) are actively implementing similar schemes with the Checkpoint model particularly popular.
Pre-court diversion, as defined by the CJI, operates in two ways: first, individuals who are arrested and likely to receive a formal out of court disposal are ‘diverted’ into either a less serious out of court disposal or an informal disposal; second, individuals who are arrested and likely to be prosecuted in court are ‘diverted’ into either a formal out of court disposal or an informal disposal (this diversion from court is sometimes called ‘deferred prosecution’).
What is common to both of these diversion routes is that an individual who complies with the conditions of a pre-court diversion should receive a lesser criminal justice disposal than they would have otherwise received, reducing the negative consequences of formal criminal justice sanctions (a process CJI calls de-escalation) and allowing practitioners to focus resources on addressing the root causes of offending.
The evidence on pre-court diversion
CJI reviewed the available research on pre-court diversion from a number of common law countries and found that, when implemented properly:
- There is strong evidence internationally, and moderate evidence from the UK, that pre-court diversion reduces reoffending;
- There is moderate evidence that pre-court diversion reduces the costs to the criminal justice system;
- There is promising evidence on the impact of pre-court diversion on victim satisfaction;
- There is only limited evidence that pre-court diversion can reduce criminal justice processing times, though this is primarily due to a lack of research;
- CJI also found wider evidence on what works to reduce reoffending that suggested that pre-court diversion may be particularly applicable for specific groups of individuals, most notably vulnerable women, young adults, and individuals with substance misuse and mental health illnesses, although there is little specific UK evidence that isolated the impact of pre-court diversion on these groups.
Promising practice principles
Drawing on the specific evidence base on diversion, and on the body of research around effective practice with offenders, CJI has identified a number of promising practice principles which they consider will foster effective practice. These principles suggest that pre-court diversion schemes should:
- Avoid net-widening drawing individuals further into the criminal justice system than they otherwise would have been;
- Keep eligibility criteria broad thereby working with all those suitable and avoiding unnecessarily low referral numbers;
- Consider the impact of formal admissions of guilt on eligibility and participation especially on people from groups which tend to have less trust in the criminal justice system;
- Ensure the referral process is quick and simple so that practitioners are not discouraged from referring and because evidence shows that swift responses build future compliance;
- Prioritise victim satisfaction and procedural fairness for the benefit of both specific victims and to ensure that the process commands public trust;
- Avoid ‘overdosing’ with overly intensive interventions which offenders may struggle to complete;
- Deliver responsive and need-focused interventions on the basis of assessed risk and to address the needs which are driving reoffending;
- Work in partnership to ensure that all the agencies involved share the aims of the scheme and a vision of how it should be delivered.