First Lady Wolf, Restorative Justice Advocates Speak on Diversionary Programs as an Alternative to Incarceration

February 02, 2022

First Lady Frances Wolf hosted Women in Reentry: Diversionary Programs, the seventh and final in a series of virtual conversations with reentry and restorative justice advocates. The panel discussed the importance and effectiveness of diversionary programs, how they can be utilized as an alternative to prison, and why they are especially beneficial for women.  

Panelists included:  

“A few years ago, I had the opportunity to observe a mental health court proceeding in York County, and I was so struck by the way professionals came together to embrace the program participants and support them as they navigated many of the barriers we have discussed throughout this series: housing, employment, mental health, and much more,” said First Lady Wolf. “Everyone in the room had the same goal in mind, which was to keep the participants out of the criminal justice system by addressing the root causes of their behaviors. I thought of how different the outcome could be for so many others, if they had this opportunity.” 

The Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) offers data on diversionary court programs (including adult drugDUImental health, and veterans courts) throughout 51 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. In 2020, AOPC data shows that out of the 1,616 admissions to these programs statewide, approximately 472 were nonmale. In each of these programs, successful graduates experienced an increase in employment ranging from 22 percent (DUI court) to 113 percent (mental health court).  

In a recent report released by the Incarcerated Women’s Working Group, a coalition co-facilitated by staff from the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, states, “A primary goal of programs that divert people from traditional prosecution is to avoid re-traumatization and to offer rehabilitation and treatment instead of punishment. However, for these programs to be effective and successful in fulfilling the goal of disrupting incarceration, these programs must be trauma and gender responsive. A system or program that is gender responsive takes into account the different reasons why women and girls engage in criminalized behaviors and their unique barriers, needs and contributions. Incarcerated women are often mothers and primary caregivers to other family members. Women play a unique role in their communities and they have unique barriers to accessing services.” 

The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) has long recognized the importance of supporting offender reentry initiatives and the impact that the lack of adequate reentry services has on offender rehabilitation, recidivism and public safety.  PCCD’s reentry coordinator works with agencies and non-profit service providers to bring consistency to how prisoner reentry is managed prior to and post release from incarceration.  In addition to awarding grants to assist in the reentry process, PCCD’s reentry coordinator acts as a liaison with groups vested in the problem and interested in finding ways to remove those barriers, prevent recidivism, and adapt services that better address the real needs of released offenders.  For more information about PCCD’s reentry efforts and grant opportunities, please visit PCCD’s website at www.pccd.pa.gov.  

In August of 2021, the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania’s Comprehensive Behavioral Health Task Force released the results of their Criminal Justice Diversion Program survey, in which 43 out of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties were represented. Out of those 43 counties: 

  • 23 counties report having a pre-charge diversionary program in place; 
  • 24 counties report utilizing a school-based diversionary program to keep children from entering the juvenile justice system; 
  • 30 counties report engaging with student assistance programs to divert students from the criminal justice system; 
  • 30 counties report engaging with magisterial district judges to divert defendants from county jails; 
  • 32 counties report employing bail alternatives as a diversion tactic; and 
  • 22 counties utilize the “Stepping Up” initiative, a national movement to support counties in developing strategies that reduce the number of people with mental illness and co-occurring disorders in jails.  

“These programs are proven to have a positive impact on participants, their families, and their counties by reducing recidivism, increasing opportunity, and keeping families together,” said First Lady Wolf. “Tom and I would love to see them expanded throughout the commonwealth.”  The conversation can be viewed on the One Lens Facebook page or PAcast.  

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