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NC Department of Health and Human Services Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Services

Jail Diversion

FAQs-Frequently Asked Questions

Current Jail Diversion Page

What is a jail diversion program?

A jail diversion program is a mental health program specifically designed to identify and divert people with mental illness from the criminal justice system into appropriate treatment in the mental health system. There is a variety of jail diversion programs. They have the following elements in common:

  • They screen people in contact with the criminal justice system for a mental disorder.
  • They employ mental health professionals to evaluate the person. They negotiate with prosecutors, defense attorneys, community-based mental health providers, and the courts to develop community-based mental health disposition for the mentally ill person. 
  • Mental health disposition is sought as an alternative to prosecution. It is a condition of a reduction in charges, or as satisfaction for the charges; for example, as a condition of probation.
  • Once disposition is decided on, the diversion program links the client to community-based mental health services.

Why are jail diversion programs necessary?

People with untreated mental illness often end up in jail. Every year, about 800,000 people with severe mental illness end up in our nation's jails.

Up to 15% of jail inmates have a severe mental illness (only about 5% do in the general population). More than 4% of men in jail suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Women in jail have more than twice the rates of mental illness than men in jail. The largest mental health institutions in our country are also our largest jails (the Los Angeles County jail, Rikers Island jail, Cook County jail, etc.)

People with mental illness fare poorly in our criminal justice system.

People with mental illness are more likely to be arrested than people who aren't mentally ill. In one study, almost half of  the people with mental illness were arrested following encounters with the police, compared to just 26% of people without mental illness.

They also serve longer jail sentences. A person with mental illness will spend two to five times longer in jail, and average 15 months more in prison, than offenders without mental illness convicted of the same crimes.

They face more serious charges than others without mental illness who are arrested for similar behaviors.

People with mental illness have a harder time coping with being jailed. They experience more fights, infractions, and sanctions in prison than other inmates. They are more vulnerable to being exploited, victimized, or manipulated by other inmates than individuals who do not have mental illness.

Society benefits when people with mental illness receive appropriate treatment instead of incarceration.

Jail diversion programs may help alleviate jail over-crowding. The program provides an alternative to being jailed. This helps to lower the costs of jailing and also unnecessary prosecution.

It is a helps consumer’s get access to appropriate treatment. It provides support and incentives for staying in treatment. And helps end the cycle of repeated incarcerations and crisis care. The person with mental illness has a better quality of life.

What are some kinds of jail diversion programs?

There are two basic types. Pre-booking jail diversion programs that seek to divert the individual before charges are pressed, and post-booking jail diversion programs that intervene to divert the individual following his / her arrest and incarceration.

Pre-Booking Jail Diversion Programs

Pre-booking jail diversion programs divert the person from the criminal justice system before they are formally charged with a crime. The elements of a pre-booking jail diversion program usually include a 24 hour / 7 day per week crisis center that can serve as an alternative to jail for persons with mental illness.

There are also law enforcement officers who receive special training in dealing with mental health crises, or mental health professionals who serve along side law enforcement officers and provides the crisis / mental health response.

Post-Booking Jail Diversion Programs

Post-booking jail diversion programs divert a person from the criminal justice system after they have been detained and incarcerated. Some post-booking models of jail diversion in North Carolina include the following:

  • Mental Health Courts are specialized courts that facilitate cooperation between the mental health service system and the judicial system in order to provide repeat adult offenders that need mental health services with treatment and other services aimed at improving their ability to function in the community, thereby reducing recidivism and improving outcomes for these individuals.  These courts typically have a docket of mental health consumers, and use the principle of therapeutic jurisprudence to foster the recovery of persons with mental illness who are in the criminal justice system. 
  • Jail Diversion Case Management - Help identify persons with mental illness who are in jail, and determine who may be effectively and safely treated in the community.  They then negotiate with the court to establish a community based treatment disposition for the person with mental illness, when this can be done at little risk to public safety.  Finally, they link these persons to treatment and services upon their release from jail. 

What are some key features of successful jail diversion programs?

Successful jail diversion programs have certain elements in common, regardless of the type or model of jail diversion program. Six key features common to successful jail diversion programs have been identified:

  • Coordination of services at the community level, with a high level of cooperation between all parties. This may be the most difficult and important element to success. Formal agreements are helpful tools to ensure cooperation.
  • Regular meetings of all the key players. This is necessary to work out problems as they arise. The outcome coordinator for a jail diversion program in another state found that "Programs with regular meetings thrived. Programs without regular meetings died."
  • Liaisons, which are responsible for linking the judicial, correctional, and mental health pieces of a program.
  • Strong leadership. The leader might be any one of the key players, but they should have an understanding of the various systems. They also need sufficient authority to bring others on board, and the informal connections needed to make the program work.
  • Early and effective identification of jail diversion candidates. Screening should occur in the first 24 to 48 hours of detention.
  • Case managers who reflect the cultural diversity of their clients, and have prior experience in criminal justice and mental health.

What type or model of jail diversion is best for my community?

A variety of factors should be taken into consideration when determining which types of jail diversion programs a community should develop. These factors include the amount of support in the community and among the partners for a particular model, and whether or not the infrastructure to support it exists or can be built. In addition, some types of jail diversion programs may be appropriate for certain types of offenders, but not others. For example, pre-booking initiatives are typically used to divert people who have committed minor offences, but not for more serious crimes. Nonetheless, research has indicated that diversion is most likely to succeed, be less likely to violate individual rights, and to be less costly to the criminal justice system if it occurs early on in the criminal justice process.


How may I contact a jail diversion program in my area?

You can contact your LME or Get more information.

Where can I find out more about jail diversion?

General information about jail diversion:

The TAPA Center for Jail Diversion can be reached through the GAINS Center link below or by telephone at (866) 518-8272.

GAINS Center is a national organization that collects and disseminates information about services for people with co-occurring disorders who are in contact with the criminal justice system.

The Consensus Project is a national effort sponsored by the Council of State Governments to provide information, research, and support to organizations helping people with mental illness in the criminal justice system. Find their report and recommendations for system and policy changes.

Information about starting a jail diversion program:

Download an article prepared by the Mental Health Association, and published by the TAPA Center for Jail Diversion.

Information about models of pre-booking jail diversion programs:

The TAPA Center for Jail Diversion published a monograph on police-based jail diversion programs that provides excellent information about pre-booking diversion programs, how they work, and how to start one. You can order it from the TAPA Center web site.

Reuland, M. (2004) A Guide To Implementing Police-Based Diversion Programs for People with Mental Illness. Delmar, NY: Technical Assistance and Policy Analysis Center for Jail Diversion.

Other resources about specific models of pre-booking diversion programs are as follows:

Memphis CIT Model
Police Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT), Memphis, Tennessee
Coordinator, Crisis Intervention Team, Memphis Police Department
201 Poplar Ave., Memphis, TN 38103
(901) 576-5735

Birmingham Model
Birmingham, Alabama Police Team with Mental Health Experience
Senior Community Service Officer, Birmingham Police Department
1710 First Avenue North, Birmingham, AL 35203
(205) 254-2793

Find additional information on pre-booking jail diversion programs.

Information about models of post-booking jail diversion programs:

Mental Health Courts

Go to the Consensus Project web site for information about mental health courts, including a link to the Community Court in Orange County.

Go to the Bazelon Center website for information on mental health courts.

Information about advocating for people with mental illness who are in the criminal justice system:

The Urban Justice Center's Mental Health Project and NAMI - New York State collaborated on a handbook for advocates working to help mental health consumers in the criminal justice system. Although this handbook was specifically designed to help advocates in New York State, much of the information in the handbook may help advocates for people with mental illness in North Carolina's criminal justice system. Click here to access the handbook.
Urban Justice Center - Mental Health Project
666 Broadway, 10th Floor, New York, NY. 10012
(646) 602-5600


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