Imagine a program that saves Cook County at least $20 million per year while reducing crime, incarceration, and unemployment. This is no fantasy -- it's called diversion court, and Cook County can and should implement it right away.
Here's how it works: when a non-violent defendant with a limited number of prior offenses has substance abuse issues or mental illness, the defendant is referred to diversion court rather than traditional criminal court. A diversion court judge then sentences the defendant to a term of closely monitored probation with conditions, which includes community service, education services, periodic drug screening, and enrollment in a community-based mental health and/or drug treatment program. Defendants who complete the terms of probation would have their disposition vacated and charge dismissed, and thus are thus spared the adverse effects of a felony record.
Other diversion systems nationwide have seen major reductions in cost and recidivism. By limiting processing steps and incarceration, a diversion court will save Cook County nearly $2,000 per eligible defendant per year. By ensuring lower rates of recidivism, arrest, and victims' property losses, while increasing employment rates, diversion court offers Cook County and its community members even more meaningful savings.
Treating (rather than incarcerating) individuals with addiction and mental illness will reduce the number of costly crimes commonly linked to those conditions. Access to job training, combined with avoidance of incarceration and its attendant criminal record, will allow many defendants to retain or obtain employment. A diversion court functioning at capacity will save at least $5,000 per eligible defendant, or a total of $20 million per year.
The diversion court can be created by the Circuit Court of Cook County without additional state or county involvement. We recommend that Chief Judge Timothy Evans designate three existing criminal division courtrooms and attendant staff to serve exclusively as diversion courtrooms, where eligible defendants will be tried and monitored.
A recent report funded by the State, the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission - Final Report, noted that the County's otherwise successful drug and mental health courts fail to reach the majority of eligible defendants. In line with one of the report's key recommendations, the diversion court would use existing resources to broaden the reach of these current programs.
Currently, after being warehoused for 70-150 days in Cook County jail, some 4,000 diversion-eligible defendants annually are either sentenced to further imprisonment or released with little to no monitoring. The result is an expensive cycle of recidivism and ever-increasing prison sentences.
Community-based drug and mental treatment facilities, job training programs, and other rehabilitative organizations can be utilized more efficiently and effectively with a judge-directed diversion and deferral program. What are we waiting for?
The Cook County Board, under President Toni Preckwinkle's leadership, is proving itself to be serious about reform. The diversion court is a common sense, cost-saving measure that promotes justice as well as fiscal responsibility. We urge the Board and the Court to act.
Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice
Chicago Council of Lawyers
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