Analyzing the Impact of Diversion in Harris County
Harris County developed an innovative mental health diversion program to benefit people with low level, misdemeanor offenses, and launched the Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center in 2017. While the Center stood to make a big impact on the lives of those who would otherwise be sent to jail, the multi-stakeholder initiative lacked dedicated resources to evaluate the program and confirm the intended outcomes— a common challenge faced by state and local governments. Jurisdictions often implement programs and policies meant to improve the lives of community members, but lack the capacity to measure outcomes and impacts of these change initiatives.
JSP partnered with Harris County to conduct an outcome evaluation of the Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center. The program sought to provide treatment options to individuals with significant mental health issues who were arrested for a minor misdemeanor offense. While early indicators suggested the program was successful at diverting the target population, it was important for Harris County stakeholders to understand the impact the program had on individuals with mental health issues, on the jail, on law enforcement officers, and on the County. The goal of the evaluation was to answer three questions:
- How does the program impact the County jail’s footprint for people with mental health issues who have engaged in low-level misdemeanor behavior?
- Does the program improve the lives of the people who were diverted from jail?
- Has the number and frequency of law enforcement contacts been reduced for people who were diverted to the program?
To help Harris County understand the impact that the program had on participants, we conducted a series of independent analyses to answer each of these research questions. We worked closely with justice system agencies to collect administrative data on participant demographic characteristics, length of time each participant was considered at risk, recidivism rates, participant well-being, program service-related activities, program cost, and other related costs to the county including justice system and psychiatric care system costs. In addition to these quantitative data, we collected qualitative data from stakeholders via survey- gathering their thoughts on the program itself, the program’s benefits, and areas where the program could be improved.
The findings from our program analysis pointed to various positive outcomes of the diversion program. For example, we found that program participants were less likely to be booked into jail, and those with frequent prior jail bookings were less likely to be booked back into the jail. Given that the program established a significant reduction in the number of people who returned to the jail for a new offense, we next explored the costs of the program to see if there were cost savings that could be associated with the implementation of the program. Not only were participants less likely to return to jail, but the program also produced a significant cost savings to the County.
Our analysis helped Harris County to measure the impact of their innovation, and identify opportunities for scaling that impact. The program was initially developed as a pilot to help Harris County reduce the number of people with mental health issues being repeatedly booked into jail for low-level misdemeanors, and we originally partnered with the County to evaluate the program’s impact on this population. However, our findings helped Harris County see that the diversion center not only had positive benefits for this unique group, but also significantly impacted those individuals without prior exposure to the criminal justice system.
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