By Leslie Griffin

People who have mental illnesses and substance use disorders are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. According to a study in Psychiatric Services, the prevalence of people in jails who have serious mental illnesses is often three to six times higher than that of the general public. Often, these individuals cycle through local criminal justice systems, which are frequently not equipped to provide the costly treatment and support services required by people who have behavioral health needs. To address these challenges, a growing number of communities are implementing behavioral health diversion programs as alternatives to conventional criminal justice case processing and incarceration, namely by connecting people to the appropriate community-based treatment and support services outside the criminal justice system.

Similarly, the majority of youth involved with the juvenile justice system in this country have a diagnosable mental illness or substance use disorder. Many youth end up in the juvenile justice system not because of the seriousness of their offense, but because of their need for mental health services that are unavailable in the community. Given the needs of these youth, there is a growing sentiment that whenever safe and possible, youth with behavioral health needs who are at a lower risk should be diverted to effective community-based treatment, including options outside the juvenile justice system if these youth are not a risk to public safety.

For 20 years, the CSG Justice Center has used data and research-driven practices to improve diversion. Here are some examples of those initiatives.

Helped federal partners and other national nonprofits pass groundbreaking diversion legislation.

In 2004, the Justice Center helped secure the passage of the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act and helped increase funding from just $5 million in fiscal year 2006 to $40 million in fiscal year 2022. The act has provided $143 million to communities to divert adults and youth with serious mental illnesses.

Helped establish more than 600 diversion and other criminal justice and behavioral health programs nationally.

  • The Justice Center helped stand up over 185 initiatives that improve traditional law enforcement responses to people in crisis, including community responder teams, co-responder models and mobile crisis units.
  • It supported the creation of hundreds of mental health courts, alternatives to arrest and detention and other services.
  • The Justice Center fueled collaboration across behavioral health and criminal justice systems in hundreds of communities, including supporting federal grant awardees across 49 states and two U.S. territories seeking to reduce criminal justice contact for people with mental illnesses and connect them to treatment.

Helped state and local leaders replace siloed diversion initiatives with systems-level approaches.

  • In 2015, along with the National Association of Counties and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, the Justice Center created Stepping Up, a national initiative seeking to reduce the number of people in jails who have a serious mental illness. It now includes 550 counties (and counting) that are often creating diversion opportunities to support this goal.
  • The Police-Mental Health Collaboration framework helps leaders create systems-level partnerships to reduce police contact for people in crisis, decrease use of force and arrest and connect people to care.
  • The Justice Center provides tools and support to guide communities in bringing diversion and crisis services to scale.

Supported state lawmakers in passing legislation to promote diversion for youth

As a result of the Improving Outcomes for Youth initiative, Indiana passed legislation in 2022 that created new statewide grant programs to increase diversion opportunities (including a focus on youth with behavioral health needs), create community-based alternatives to incarceration and expand reintegration services that will support reentry to the community. The legislation also requires the use of risk-based screening and assessment tools and the statewide use of a mental health screening tool to inform diversion and dispositional decisions and match children with the most appropriate type of supervision and services that can reduce their likelihood of recidivism.

Looking ahead, the challenge is ensuring that there are sufficient diversion, treatment and support options available in every community. To meet this goal, the CSG Justice Center is focusing on preventing system involvement in several ways, including:

  • Creating a robust crisis response to prevent arrests and jail stays.
  • Increasing focus on people experiencing homelessness.
  • Making front-end diversion the norm for youth.

This article appeared in the CSG Capitol Ideas magazine (2022, Issue 4). View current and past issues at

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