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Minneapolis Expands Diversion Programs in Lieu of Prison

Minneapolis Expands Diversion Programs in Lieu of Prison

Diversion is an alternative sentencing program that permits qualified candidates to enter the program and, assuming the candidates complete the program, avoid serious criminal convictions and prison. Diversion programs were first started under the Great Society social programs in the Johnson Administration.

These programs were largely dismantled under the Reagan Administration. However, by the mid-1990’s several states were resurrecting alternative sentencing and punishment structures to tackle the underlying causes of crime.

The Problem

Many misdemeanor and minor drug offenses do not result in jail time. But they do saddle people with hundreds of dollars in fines and penalties. Unfortunately, many of these people are unable to pay these costs which quickly balloon into thousands. Eventually, they are rearrested for falling behind on their payments. These people are pulled into the penal system, they lose their jobs, their homes, and the government is forced to pay for them while they are incarcerated. The net effect is a loss for both parties, the government, and the offenders.

Diversion Program

Diversion programs were enacted as an alternative path for certain, eligible, defendants. It started as a program that emphasized treatment, counseling, and assistance over incarceration for certain drug offenders (primarily low-level users, people charged with distribution were ineligible for the program) and is now rapidly expanding.

Expansion of Program

Minneapolis is expanding the number of defendants who are eligible for the program. Diversion program is now used as an alternative sentencing system for a variety of misdemeanors including:

  • Uninsured driving;
  • Public urination; and
  • Shoplifting.

The objective was to avoid saddling these people with unsustainable debt loads that, almost, inevitably resulted in reincarceration. The City Attorney justified the expansion by explaining that enforcement levels will remain the same but the expansion of the program will ensure that people are not penalized for being poor.

To facilitate the expansion, the city established a team to review misdemeanor charges which will assist police in determining when to bring charges. It will also review cases for eligibility into the diversion program. Most low-level offenders are eligible for the diversion program unless they committed a violent or serious crime.


Diversion programs, arguably, address the underlying causes of crime without perpetuating it. An experimental diversion program for interfering with police charges was launched last year. Suspects who qualify meet with the officer one-on-one to discuss the events that lead to the arrest. After the meet, the charge is wiped from their record.

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