Pre-arrest diversion of people with mental illness: Literature review and international survey

Behav Sci Law. 2006;24(6):845-56. doi: 10.1002/bsl.738.


Mental health diversion is a process where alternatives to criminal sanctions are made available to persons with mental illness (PMI) who have come into contact with the law. One form of mental health diversion is pre-arrest, in which the police use their discretion in laying charges. Concomitant with the growth of pre-arrest diversion programs is a growing body of research devoted to the phenomenon. The purpose of this paper is to review the existing literature of pre-arrest diversion, and to report the results of an international survey of pre-arrest diversion programs we conducted to identify evidence-based practices. On the basis of our review and survey, we note that successful pre-trial programs appear to integrate relevant mental health, substance abuse and criminal justice agencies by having regular meetings between key personnel from the various agencies. Often, a liaison person with a mandate to effect strong leadership plays a key role in the coordination of various agencies. Streamlining services through the creation of an emergency drop-off center with a no-refusal policy for police cases is seen as crucial. While there is some indication that mentally ill offenders benefit from their participation in this form of diversion, the evaluative literature has not yet achieved the "critical mass" necessary to create generalizable, evidence-based knowledge. The absence of generally agreed-upon outcomes could lead to the inequitable application of basic principles of diversion. We suggest that indicators, benchmarks, and outcomes must be agreed upon if a comprehensive understanding of pre-arrest programs is to emerge.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Commitment of Mentally Ill / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Community Mental Health Services / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Comorbidity
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison*
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Mental Disorders / rehabilitation
  • Prisoners / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Prisoners / psychology
  • Referral and Consultation / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / rehabilitation
  • Treatment Outcome