Diversion is up, though it may not appear so at first glance. Here’s why.
Diversion is up in Philadelphia, although that may be not be immediately obvious when looking at the DAO’s new Public Data Dashboard. Defendants have long had the option of diversion, which is a procedure by which a defendant participates in a program that is often court supervised and allows the defendant to resolve their case swiftly with the goal of rehabilitation instead of incarceration.
Examples of diversion programs are interventions for intimate partner abuse, which can be available in cases where the defendant agrees to complete a treatment program in order to be allowed to continue working and providing for dependents; and Veteran’s Court, which provides specialized programs for eligible veterans as a rehabilitative alternative to incarceration.
Through September 2019, the diversion rate for drug possession cases was 28%. This means that for every 100 cases charged, 28 were diverted. That is the lowest diversion rate since 2014. By comparison, through September 2014, the DAO diverted 39% of drug possession cases. Additional context makes it apparent that diversion is actually up since 2018 — even if it doesn’t seem so at first glance.
Decisions about how to handle cases are often influenced by factors beyond the control of the DAO. For example, the availability and size of diversion programs influences how many people can be diverted. Here, the relevance of drug testing and changes in city ordinances are discussed in relation to their diversion rates.
It is important to understand that the landscape of drug possession arrests in 2014 was different than it is today. Until October 20, 2014, cannabis (marijuana) possession was still fully criminalized in Philadelphia. On October 20, 2014, a new city ordinance effectively decriminalized cannabis, leading to an immediate and precipitous drop in possession cases. New charges for drug possession in Philadelphia dropped from over 700 per month to under 400 per month in the months after October 20, 2014. With the drop in charges came a similar drop in diversion: cannabis possession cases went from accounting for just over 50% of cases diverted in mid-2014 to at or below 40% in 2015–2017.
Going back to the second chart — diversion as a percent of non-dropped-cases — the diversion rate dropped in late 2014 because cannabis cases, which were a large proportion of overall possession arrests, were likely being diverted at a much higher rate than cases involving substances like heroin or crack or powder cocaine. By removing many of the frequently diverted cannabis cases from the system, the overall balance of possession cases started to lean more heavily toward less frequently diverted cases (note that there is a slight lag in the change in diversion rate as compared to the change in cases charged because the diversion rate measures cases when they are closed, not opened).
When District Attorney Krasner took office, he quickly instituted a policy of diverting more cases, including drug possession cases, and the rate rose precipitously despite the change in caseload that saw the removal of cannabis cases from the system.
So, despite the fact that at first glance the diversion rate for drug possession cases appears to have dropped since 2014, diversions have actually gone up.
(Note: An earlier version of this story indicated that there is a drug testing backlog. Thanks to improved communication protocols between our office and the Office of Forensic Science, the OFS has been able to prioritize their work.)