WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is underutilizing programs meant to keep low-level criminal offenders out of prison and is doing a poor job of tracking their success, a watchdog report found Thursday.
The audit from the department’s inspector general examines federal diversion programs that offer alternatives to prison for certain suspects accused of non-violent and low-level crimes.
Attorney General Eric Holder called for wider use of diversion programs as part of a 2013 initiative, known as “Smart on Crime,” to reduce the federal prison population and reshape the criminal justice system. Advocates also have trumpeted such programs as a fairer and more cost-effective way to deal with non-violent drug users and other offenders.
But the inspector general’s office found that the Justice Department is making uneven use of pretrial diversion programs as well as similar programs run by the federal courts.
Nearly half of the 94 U.S. Attorney offices in the country rarely use pretrial diversion, which steers low-level offenders away from the court system and can lead to the dismissal of charges against offenders who successfully complete probation. And the vast majority of judicial districts do not offer drug courts or other court-based programs that offer treatment and drug testing instead of prison.
The inspector general’s office said it counted more than 7,106 offenders over a three-year period who were convicted of low-level and non-violent offenses and who could have been suitable candidates for pretrial diversion. But only a fraction of that population successfully completed diversion programs.
“By diverting those offenders from traditional court proceedings, the department could have potentially saved millions of tax dollars in prison costs,” Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in a videotaped statement accompanying the audit.
The inspector general tried to establish how many offenders had been placed in diversionary programs, but the Justice Department does not track those numbers and has “few, if any, accurate metrics to properly evaluate whether these diversion programs are effective in reducing prosecution and incarceration costs, or reducing recidivism,” Horowitz said.
In a response to the report, the Justice Department said it agreed that more could be done to evaluate the effectiveness of diversion programs, but it said that the number of such programs had increased dramatically in the last few years.