Evaluation of Prosecutor-led gun diversion programs fuses research, policy, and practice

Front steps of a courthouseResearchers at the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice have launched a two-year project to study prosecutor-led gun diversion programs (PLGDP). Funded by the Joyce Foundation, the project launched September 1, 2021 and will conclude in 2023.

"This is the first major study I know of that focuses on this very new type of program," said project leader Matt Epperson, associate professor in the Crown Family School.

PLGDPs divert people charged with illegal gun possession or other gun-related offenses from traditional court proceedings in exchange for taking part in a special program that will result in charge dismissal upon successful program completion.

Portrait of Associate Professor Matt EppersonEpperson and two Crown Family School colleagues—Hanna Sharif-Kazemi and Hannah Lee—have issued a report titled "Principles of Prosecutor-Led Gun Diversion Programming: The National Landscape and Current Trends."

"This kind of gun diversion work is being done in many different cities in different ways and interest for them is growing," said Hannah Lee of the Crown Family School's Smart Decarceration Project (SDP). "More prosecutors' offices are exploring them as an option if they haven't started a program yet."

In early October the SDP and the Joyce Foundation co-convened a two-day meeting to discuss gun diversion as an approach to decarceration and reducing gun violence. More than 30 researchers, community service providers, and prosecutor staff from five cities in the Midwest and East Coast attended the meeting.

One prosecutor's office partnering with the Crown Family School's SDP expressed their hopes for this work.

"Through this partnership we expect to research, identify, and evaluate effective interventions that connect low-level offenders charged with the illegal possession of a weapon, to services that de-escalate the risk of potential or future violence and prevent individuals with little or no other criminal history from obtaining a conviction," said the prosecutor's office, in an official statement.

"We must work to continue to address root causes of public safety. In doing so, we must challenge our definitions of accountability—definitions that were born out of systems rooted in discrimination and oppression—and work to interrupt cycles of violence before they begin."

At the Joyce Foundation we support work that contributes to safe and just communities," said foundation program officer Quintin Williams. "One of the ways we do this is supporting research and evaluation to see what works, under what circumstances, and when these interventions are appropriate. For too long, he said, incarceration has been accepted as the most appropriate intervention for gun-related offenses. "This work aims to understand situations where this is not the case. This body of work will be important as we reimagine the future of public safety in the United States."

The legal system finds it challenging to deal with a range of gun issues in ways that are not punitive, said Epperson, who heads the Smart Decarceration Project. But prosecutors see diversion as an alternative to locking people up. They would prefer to intervene before someone resorts to gun violence. In fact, he noted, "What we saw based on the reduction in violent crime through the '80s and into the '90s had very little to do with mass incarceration."

Many of the relatively new gun diversion programs are unique in their area. "At the end of this convening one of the prosecutors said, 'This is nice because I often feel like my office and I are alone in this. But this convening helped me see that there are others who are struggling with these same challenges and opportunities.'"

Prosecutors' offices wield a fair amount of discretion and independence in the way they press charges against individuals. These offices thus stand at a critical juncture that could exert influence on how their legal systems might continue to reverse mass incarceration, Lee noted.

"Many charges are based on possession rather than unlawful use," she said. "A lot of people carry guns for safety. The reality is that America has a gun-carrying culture."

Records show that gun arrests and gun charges are racially disparate, Lee said, and people of color often carry the burden of being criminalized. "This reality needs to be faced while having a national, ongoing conversation about gun violence and gun safety."

The SDP overview report on gun diversion programs identifies eight PLGDPs across the nation. The report includes a summary of the four most common treatment approaches followed by the programs. Some of the programs combine elements of different models.

The first is cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), which the criminal legal system often uses. This approach delves into how an individual's thoughts, actions, and emotions are tied together; then tries to correct distorted thinking.

"If you're not feeling safe, what steps can you take instead of carrying a gun, for example," Lee said.

The second is life skills and anger management training. Like CBT, this effort addresses how anger plays into gun-carrying. But it also provides training in communication, resume-writing and other life skills.

The third is service and resource provision. The provision helps link people to community resources, including workforce development, drug treatment, and therapy as needed.

The fourth is restorative justice circles. In this type of program, defendants meet with people in the community to talk about the potential harms they have done through their gun-carrying behavior.

"Then they come up with a repair-of-harm agreement that the participant engages in to figure out a way to promote holistic healing," Lee said.

Given the pervasive impact of gun violence, Epperson said he has never worked a research project that has sparked so much immediate interest. And, yet the gun-diversion programs are so new that the effectiveness of the models now used remains unknown.

"The challenge is to generate real-time evidence while we're moving toward feasible, longer-term results," he said.

--Steve Koppes