Aims: The diversion of illicit drug users and drug-related offenders comprises an important component of Australia’s policy response to illicit drugs. Identifying the programs and their key characteristics poses a formidable task for policy makers and researchers, particularly following the recent expansion of diversionary responses. This project aimed to summarise the current state of diversion in Australia: its nature and design. The analysis was guided by the following questions:
- What programs are currently utilised for the diversion of illicit drug users and drug-related offenders?
- What are the key characteristics of the diversion programs?
- What are their similarities and differences?
Results: This project identified 51 programs operating for the diversion of drug and drug-related offenders throughout Australia. By examining their key features we noted that diversion expanded considerably since 2000, and that there was an expansion not only in the number, but also the type of programs.
Diversion is now provided across the full spectrum of the diversion system, via police, courts and specialist courts. Accordingly 31% programs were for police diversion, 22% for court diversion and 18% drug courts (29% were multi-targeted). Some programs targeted drug offences. But the majority either targeted drug related offenders or were accessible for any offender. This was just one indication of the diversity of program features.
In spite of the diversity an increasingly similar set of diversionary responses was provided in Australia. The five major types ranged from police cautioning to drug court mandated treatment programs. In most jurisdictions three forms of police drug diversion were offered:
- Police diversion for cannabis (29% programs)
- Police diversion for other illicit drugs (25% programs)
- Police diversion for drug or drug-related offenders (46% programs)
Police diversion programs were complemented by two main types of court diversion programs, which targeted primarily minor drug users/drug-related offenders:
- Court diversion for minor drug/drug-related offenders (63%)
- Court diversion for serious drug/drug-related offenders (37%)
Each program type had a unique design, not only in diversionary mechanism, but also in terms of who could access the program and their typical program requirements. In theory this facilitated the provision of diversion across a spectrum of people. It became increasingly clear through this project that while there was a movement towards having five main types of diversion in each jurisdiction, there remained considerable differences in jurisdictional systems. Jurisdictions differed in their priorities towards for example the provision of court or police diversion and in the level of emphasis upon drug courts. Moreover, we identified gaps in some systems for particular types of users. Both factors have potential impacts upon who accesses diversion, the types of outcomes and the overall cost-effectiveness of diversion systems.
Research and policy implications: There has been a concerted commitment to provide diversionary responses across Australia and to the development of a more systematic and targeted approach. This bodes well for the improvement of current designs.
This project also enabled better insight into the nature of diversion in Australia today. It is clear that Australia’s diversionary response has shifted in recent years, in an arguably positive direction. Key features of the current response include firstly that diversion is predominantly used for therapeutic purposes – to divert drug and drug-related offenders into drug education and treatment, rather than out of the criminal justice system. Second, diversion is increasingly systematic. Jurisdictions provide a range of programs for different types of drug users and offenders. Third, jurisdictions have used eligibility criteria and program requirements to target the level and type of intervention according to the type of drug users (cannabis versus other drug users) and severity of drug use/drug-related offending. Such a system brings many advantages including increased potential to address the causes of drug use and offending, to provide a more equitable response, and to maximise the cost-effectiveness of diversion. But there are also potential dangers particularly of complacency or assuming that Australia’s diversionary response is working as best it can.
By documenting the major types of diversion and their unique features we have identified key similarities and differences. The challenge is to facilitate the improvement of Australia’s diversionary response by increasing knowledge of what design features contribute towards the provision of effective diversion and which do not. This demands attention not only to the major types of diversion, but also to the diversionary systems. This represents key challenges, not least of which is the need for new tools and methods to expand this knowledge and provide practical guidance as to the future of Australia’s diversion system.
A number of avenues for future consideration include:
- For whom are drug diversion systems most effective and most ineffective?
- To what extent and how do programmatic features e.g. eligibility criteria and minimum requirements impact upon program outcomes?
- To what extent are current systems meeting current needs?
- How can jurisdictions best meet future needs?
- How can jurisdictions maximise the cost-effectiveness of drug diversion systems?
It is hoped this document will spark future research and debate concerning the nature and effectiveness of Australian drug diversion programs, and inform Australia’s diversionary response to drug and drug-related offenders, now and in the future.