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

NC Jail Diversion Program

Jail Diversion FAQs

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 individuals with mental illness from the criminal justice system into appropriate treatment in the mental health system. Although a variety of models of jail diversion programs exist, they have the following elements in common:

  • They screen detainees in contact with the criminal justice system for the presence of mental disorder;
  • They employ mental health professionals to evaluate the detainees and negotiate with prosecutors, defense attorneys, community-based mental health providers, and the courts to develop community-based mental health dispositions for mentally ill detainees.
  • Mental health disposition is sought as an alternative to prosecution, as 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 frequently end up in jail:

  • Every year, about 800,000 people with severe mental illness are incarcerated in our nation's jails.
  • Up to 15% of jail inmates have a severe mental illness (compared with 5% in the general population).
  • More than 4% of men in jail suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, manic phase.
  • Women in jail have more than twice the rates of mental illness of 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 persons who aren't mentally ill. In one study, 47% of people with mental illness were arrested following encounters with the police, compared with just 26% of people without mental illness.
  • Serve longer sentences in jail, spending two to five times longer in jail, and average 15 months more in prison, than offenders without mental illness convicted of the same crimes.
  • Face more serious charges than others without mental illness who are arrested for similar behaviors.
  • Receive stiffer sentences than offenders without mental illness who are convicted of the same crime.
  • Have greater difficulty coping with incarceration. They experience more fights, infractions, and sanctions in prison than inmates without mental illness.
  • 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.
  • Reduce costs of incarceration and unnecessary prosecution.
  • Help consumers get access to appropriate treatment.
  • Provide support and incentives for staying in treatment.
  • Help end the cycle of repeated incarcerations and crisis care.

What are some types 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:

These are programs that divert the individual from the criminal justice system before the individual is 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.
  • Law enforcement officers who receive special training in dealing with mental health crises (as in the Memphis model), or
  • Mental health professionals who serve along side law enforcement officers and provides the crisis / mental health response (as in the Birmingham model).

Post-booking jail diversion programs:

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

  • Mental Health Courts - specialized courts with dockets for offenders with mental illness.
  • Jail Diversion - Intensive Case Management - jail diversion staff provide intensive case management to individuals with mental illness and justice system involvement
  • Jail Diversion - Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) - similar to the intensive case management model, except the jail diversion case manager is a member of an ACT team.
  • TASC - Care Management - TASC staff provide jail diversion services, but do not provide direct case management services to the jail diversion client. Case management is provided through linkage to other community programs or services.

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. The TAPA Center for Jail Diversion has identified six key features common to successful jail diversion programs. These key features are as follows:

  1. 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. MOUs and MOAs are helpful tools to ensure cooperation.
  2. 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."
  3. Liaisons, or boundary spanners, responsible for linking the judicial, correctional, and mental health pieces of a program.
  4. Strong leadership. The leader might be any one of the key players, but should have an understanding of the various systems, sufficient authority to bring others on board, and the informal connections needed to make the program work.
  5. Early and effective identification of jail diversion candidates. Screening should occur in the first 24 to 48 hours of detention. [See the link to the PowerPoint presentation on screening for mental illness in a jail setting at the end of this FAQ document.]
  6. Non-traditional 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 or models 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, the Bazelon Center 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 in the early phases of criminal justice processing. The following graph, reproduced from a Bazelon Center document, demonstrates this relationship:

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

For more information contact your LME.

What are the steps to developing a jail diversion program?*

  1. Designate a lead person for the planning process - This individual should have good planning skills, and the leadership skills necessary to bring a coalition of community leaders together to plan a jail diversion initiative.
  2. Identify the key agencies in the community to be involved in planning, and the people within those agencies who need to be involved. These should include most of following agencies or individuals:
    • Police Department
    • Sheriff's Department
    • Jail and corrections administrators
    • Jail mental health and health service providers
    • District attorneys and prosecutors
    • Public defenders
    • Local judges and magistrates
    • Probation officers
    • Criminal justice partnership program staff or administrators
    • Housing authority
    • Social service providers
    • Consumer and family advocacy groups
    • Victim advocacy groups
    • Area program administrators
    • Elected officials (mayor, county commissioners, legislators, etc.)
    • Other community mental health and substance abuse treatment programs
  3. Meet regularly with all the key players to:
  • Learn about the criminal justice system and the unique challenges faced by criminal justice agencies and individuals in working with people with mental illness.
  • Educate the other key players about jail diversion. They may need to learn what it is, why it is needed, and the potential benefits of it for the client, for them, and for their agencies. There may be many apprehensions, prejudices, and concerns to address.
  • Identify the type and amount of services needed for jail diversion clients.
  • Find out where gaps in service exist.
  • Plan for addressing local service gaps and needs.
  • Determine the type of jail diversion program(s) that best fits your community (such as a pre-booking initiative vs. post-booking initiative; if pre-booking is selected, would Memphis or Birmingham model best fit your community's needs? If a post-booking program is selected, would a mental health court, TASC care management, ACT team approach, or intensive case management model approach work best for your community?)

4. Identify key positions for the diversion program:

  • Create liaison positions
  • Recruit staff who reflect the cultural and racial diversity of program clients
  • Establish a specialized case management program

5. Specify the pathways of your diversion process. Construct and use detailed flowcharts as a guide.

6. Designate specific responsibilities for each participating agency; particularly for each participating agency involved in the pathway to jail diversion

7. Develop a basic management information system (MIS):

  • The MIS should be able to keep track of where people are in the diversion process
  • This can be anything as informal as 3 X 5 index cards, or a standardized networked personal computer system.

8. Plan for the collection of basic data

  • Understand and have a process to meet Division of MH/DD/SA data collection requirements for the jail diversion initiative
  • To meet the requirements of your local jail diversion MIS
  • To address concerns of local partners in jail diversion (for example, if the local judge is concerned about community safety, you might collect data on re-arrest rates, or if housing is a major local issue, collect data related to housing of diverted clients).

9. Communicate regularly with your partners

  • Inform partners of progress or problems at each local group meeting.
  • Communicate with law enforcement officers, and be sure to share success stories.
  • Communicate frequently, and in writing, to judges about the progress of clients they've agreed to divert.
  • With probation officers about clients you share.

* Adapted from the GAINS Center brochure titled Jail Diversion: Creating Alternatives for Persons with Mental Illness.

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Where can I find out more about jail diversion?

General information about jail diversion:

The TAPA Center for Jail Diversion is the organization contracted by SAMHSA to provide technical assistance to jail diversion programs. They 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.

CASES Nathaniel Project
New York City, Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment
The Nathaniel Project, 346 Broadway, New York, NY 10013
(212) 732-0076

Thresholds Psychiatric Rehabilitation Centers Jail Program
4101 North Ravenswood Avenue, Chicago, IL 60613
(888) 99-REHAB or E-mail:

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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