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Addressing Mental Health and Substance Use in the Criminal Justice System

As states grapple with the complex intersection of mental illness and drug-related issues within their criminal justice systems, many are turning to diversion programs as a potential solution. These initiatives aim to guide individuals towards appropriate support systems, prioritize public safety, and lower the overall financial burden on the system.

Pennsylvania, like several other states, has been considering reforms to address the persistently high recidivism rates within its criminal justice framework. These programs offer a potential model for change that could be emulated by other states.

Recognizing the multifaceted nature of the issue, Amber Widgery, the Program Principal at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), highlighted in a report the significant portion of incarcerated individuals grappling with serious mental illnesses. These individuals often also have substance abuse issues that can complicate their rehabilitation process.

Diversion programs operate in two primary stages: deflection and diversion. Deflection seeks to intervene before an arrest occurs, with the objective of providing assistance before law enforcement, courts, or health services become involved. On the other hand, diversion comes into play after an arrest, offering an alternative route such as treatment programs, typically supervised by prosecutors or court officials, that can lead to the dismissal of charges upon successful completion.

The potential impact of these programs is substantial. Successful implementation could potentially reduce the number of residents being incarcerated. Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections’ Recidivism Risk Reduction Initiative, launched in 2008, has made strides. Nevertheless, the state’s recidivism rate has witnessed a slight uptick to 65% within three years of an inmate’s release over the past decade.

Research in the realm of criminal justice has emphasized that individuals leaving prison often encounter difficulties securing employment due to the lack of credentials or recommendations. This can significantly hinder their reintegration into society as employers tend to prioritize minimizing risks.

Pennsylvania’s recidivism rate aligns with national figures, reflecting a broader issue. Approximately 66% of prisoners released in 2008 were rearrested within three years, and this number rose to 82% within a decade, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics sourced from 24 states.

However, it’s worth noting that not all these arrests are linked to threats to public safety; a substantial number result from parole or probation violations.

The overarching goal of deflection and diversion programs is to alleviate the strain on county jails and state prisons. In Pennsylvania, authorities highlight the recurring presence of drug problems and mental health issues as factors contributing to repeated involvement with the criminal justice system.

Several states have adopted proactive “self-referral” programs, such as Kentucky’s Angel Initiative, which enables individuals struggling with substance abuse to seek assistance without facing arrest. Similarly, Utah’s “warm line” serves as a crisis hotline to provide self-referral options.

In different parts of the United States, innovative approaches have been taken. For instance, Tucson, Arizona, employs specialized teams like the Substance Use Resource Team, Mental Health Support Team, and Homeless Outreach Team, aimed at providing treatment or peer support to divert potential emergencies.

Ohio has increased funding for post-overdose initiatives like Drug Abuse Response Team grants, which follow up with overdose victims and their families to offer timely treatment and support connections within three days.

Pennsylvania, too, has initiated comparable programs at the local level. Northumberland County’s “warm handoff” program, funded by the county’s opioid settlement, provides medication and mental health counseling for recovering drug users.

Diversification of court systems is also evident in Pennsylvania, with drug courts, mental health courts, and veterans courts offering alternatives to traditional incarceration. While the state has made strides, other states have introduced more extensive diversionary courts, encompassing domestic relations and general diversion matters.

These diversion programs have gained traction due to their potential for cost savings, improved community-police relationships, and crime reduction. Their multifaceted approach aims to provide support and alternatives to individuals in need, offering a promising way forward in reforming criminal justice systems nationwide.


Earl L. Crawford, Jr. 1937-2024

Earl worked for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company for 30 years before going into business for himself at Crawford Tire from 1981 until 2019.

Dennis W. Flythe 1953-2024

Denny attended Greencastle Antrim High School and graduated from Delaware State University. He focused on providing for his family and creating a legacy.

Arnold W. Wagaman 1939-2024

Arnie was employed at Mack Truck as a quality control specialist until his retirement; a total of 39 years. In his free time, he enjoyed fishing and gardening.

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