Examining the Impacts of Arrest Deflection Strategies on Jail Reduction Efforts

Shannon Magnuson, Cherrell Green, Amy Dezember, Brian Lovins 

Reducing jail populations and the collateral consequences of the legal system requires jurisdictions to critically examine the practices bringing these populations through the criminal legal system’s front door. It requires implementing opportunities to reduce reliance on citation or arrest/booking, especially for populations with severe mental health disorders (SMHD), while also providing individuals the help and referrals they need to be well. Police-led deflection accomplishes both goals.

Deflection allows police discretion to replace arrest with outreach to community-based service providers and eliminates involvement in the legal system altogether. Importantly, as police agencies expand deflection programs to more consistently align with treatment engagement literature and the process of recovery, this will include consistent opportunities for deflection – even to people who were previously deflected. This transforms police contacts and traditional stops leading to arrest into opportunities to broker resources. Understanding how deflection programs work in practice and how police make decisions about who to triage out of the legal system is key to improving and expanding these programs, reducing jail populations, improving access to care, and helping individuals get the help they need.

The goal of this research was to understand how deflection of individuals with SMHD/SUD operates in Pima County, AZ and in Charleston County, SC. Using administrative data from local crisis centers in both sites and semi-structured interviews with police officers responsible for deflection in both sites, the research answers two primary questions:

(1) How does deflection to a local crisis center impact individuals’ subsequent experiences with continued deflection or arrest?

(2) How do police make decisions about who and when to deflect to community services broadly and to the crisis centers specifically?