Lower-Level Enforcement, Racial Disparities, and Alternatives to Arrest: A Review of Research and Practice from 1970 to 2021

Alternatives to arrest are a means of lessening the deleterious effects of exposure to the criminal legal system. This literature review evaluates policy, practice and research to-date on alternatives to arrest, focusing on five key models:

1. Citations involving releasing people to appear in court on their own at a later date in lieu of a traditional arrest in which police officers take the individual into custody.

2.Pre-Arrest Diversion programs involving pre-arrest social service participation where a case is never booked if individuals complete their diversion obligation.

3.Legalization (in which particular conduct becomes permissible under the law) and decriminalization (in which conduct remains illegal but is moved to the civil legal system).

4.Police-involved crisis response models that can either involve trained officers acting alone or in tandem with mental health professionals to respond to people in mental health crises without resorting to an arrest (e.g., by sending a person to treatment or services).

5.Non-police response models in which social workers, paramedics, or other non-police agencies respond to certain calls for service or criminalized conduct without the presence of law enforcement.

Key Findings:

  • Overall Prevalence of Alternatives to Arrest: Citations and pre-arrest diversion practices are used in jurisdictions across the country, though research indicates that police officer discretion plays a significant role in the proportion of eligible people that actually receives these alternatives.
  • Impact on Traditional Arrest: As intended, studies confirm that citation, diversion, decriminalization, legalization all significantly reduce the prevalence of traditional criminal arrests, though the magnitude of this effect varies widely by jurisdiction.
  • Additional Diversion Program Impacts: Research indicates that diversion tends to reduce recidivism and produce cost savings for criminal justice agencies.
  • Limited Research on Non-Police Models: Research on non-police response models is promising but nascent—focusing mainly on program operations, not outcomes.
  • The limited Racial Disparities literature has largely focused on marijuana reforms, finding that legalization reduced racial disparities in arrests, but decriminalization has had the opposite effect.

The report concludes with a series of research recommendations that can inform both science and practice.