Traveling Well: How Community-Based Diversions Can Radically Change our Criminal Justice System, Saving Hundreds of Hours, Thousands of Lives, and Millions of Dollars.

By Peter Borenstein

In 2007, I was an outdoor educator leading wilderness trips for teenagers in New York and Maine. We often led trips many miles away from an access road. As such, if one of our participants did drugs or got into a fight, we were not able to simply kick them off the expedition; there was nowhere for them to go. Instead, we were trained to use restorative techniques to transform conflict, build community, and continue to travel well. This approach was much more effective than just throwing these kids away; it allowed us to treat conflict and rule breaking as a teachable moment. Indeed, we found our participants remembered those experiences with conflict as some of the best times they had on the trip. Fast forward to 2014: I've just graduated from law school and been hired as a consultant by the Los Angeles City Attorney to design a new diversion program for low-level adult offenders.
Some context: The City Attorney prosecutes adults who commit misdemeanors in Los Angeles and files more than 200,000 criminal charges a year. Needless to say, the sheer volume of crimes to prosecute is overwhelming, even when 95% of defendants plead guilty. Meanwhile, defendants face hundreds of dollars in court fines and fees when they are dragged into court to be held accountable for stealing ice cream or defacing property. The process itself is expensive and time-consuming for the government; it costs more than $1,500 per defendant to be arraigned in Los Angeles Superior Court. Tragically, despite all these costs, prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys do not explore why the crime was committed in the first place, losing a valuable opportunity to learn the root causes of crime and ensure that it’s never committed again. Instead, the exact opposite happens: Each contact with the justice system makes it more likely that the defendant will go on to reoffend.
Recognizing this, the City Attorney wanted to create an alternative for low-level adult offenders that saved their time and money and, hopefully, would be more effective than the traditional criminal process for stealing socks or urinating on the street. They hired me because of my experience with Restorative Justice and I immediately set to work understanding how case files get passed around and who makes the decision to actually move forward with a criminal prosecution. I learned that every step taken through the system -- from crime to arrest to charge -- exponentially increases the system’s cost and ineffectiveness.
Luckily, I was working in an office that was searching for alternatives and so was given free rein to develop a program that would maximize outcomes and efficiencies. Thus, the Neighborhood Justice Program (NJP) was born. It allows case managers working within the City Attorney's office to identify first-time, low-level, adult offenders and prevent them from being charged with a crime. Instead, case managers schedule willing offenders (now participants in the program) for a meeting with trained community volunteers who live in the area where the crime was committed.
During the meeting, an amazing exchange occurs; the participant is allowed to actually talk about their crime, about why they did it, about their shame in committing it, about how embarrassing it was to be handcuffed or arrested in the parking lot in front of their children. Meanwhile, community members learn about someone who is struggling in their community, who may be dealing with personal, professional, economic, and family crises, and what happens when they come into contact with law enforcement for a minor crime. It’s also an opportunity to help the participant understand why it’s not okay to commit a crime, even a minor crime, and how it affects their neighbors and their community. Through this dialogue, the group creates a truly compassionate space to determine what the most equitable outcome is and to how to move forward in a positive way, how to travel well together. And all without the trappings of our wasteful criminal justice system: no judges, lawyers, court personnel, or police officers get involved.
Together, participant and community members determine what is an appropriate response to the crime, how to hold the participant accountable, and how to make sure she never commits another crime again. Together, as a group, they fashion "obligations" that the participant is responsible to complete, including anger management training, community service, A.A. meetings, or any other intervention that might be helpful to the participant and which the group thinks is appropriate. Afterward, the participant has two months to complete her obligations. If she is successful, she is never prosecuted; it's like the crime never happened. If she is unable to complete their obligations, then she is charged with a crime as normal.
Since 2014, NJP has diverted more than three thousand low-level adult offenders, for a combined savings of more than 4.5 million dollars for Los Angeles County. Recidivism (the rate at which participants commit crimes after participation in the program) is 3%, an outcome that is simply unheard of among similar diversion programs. It is the largest program of its kind in the country. And it works.
It works because it starts from a restorative idea: people should not be thrown away because they commit low-level crimes. Their lives should not be destroyed because of their wrongdoing, and low-level wrongdoing at that. Much like my participants in the wilderness, when people commit low-level crimes it presents a great opportunity for our community to determine the reasons for the wrongdoing and how to transform it into something that reinforces and strengthens our neighborhoods. Ignoring the root causes of crime and simply warehousing people (or forcing them into a modern debtor's prison) makes the problem worse for everyone.
And the earlier we intervene in someone's criminal justice journey, the better the outcomes are. NJP is a pre-charge diversion, which prevents the offender from ever stepping foot in court, being arraigned, getting a lawyer, talking to a judge, or paying fines and fees associated with the court system. From the outset, the heavy hammer of justice is not brought down upon them for stealing socks, and that's a good thing; we know that excessive and disproportionate punishment makes things much worse. A restorative, compassionate, equitable approach to low-level offenses improves outcomes for every stakeholder in our criminal justice. It is relatively easy to implement and extremely cost-effective; utilizing a network of committed and well-trained community volunteers, we can divert each offender to the NJP for $200.
Having built NJP from the ground up and seeing its benefits first-hand, I founded Restorative Justice Fund (RJFund) to help other jurisdictions develop their own pre-charge diversions. With other cities participating, we can divert hundreds of thousands of low-level offenders from the courts, ultimately saving untold money, time, and lives. We can’t afford to throw these people away; let’s use diversions like NJP to create teachable moments for offenders, neighbors, and the communities they live in, improving outcomes for everybody and, similar to my outdoor education days, making it more likely that we can continue to travel (and live) well together.