In Louisiana, speeding drivers receive a ticket telling them to mail $175 directly to the district attorney’s office. In many states, people accused of some crimes have the option to bypass courts entirely and pay the district attorney money directly, avoiding arrest and criminal charges. Pretrial diversion – where defendants pay fees to avoid prison time – are increasingly popular as a way to avoid incarceration and give people a second chance. But these same programs are profiting from those who can least afford it, leading to a broken system where those who can pay avoid jail, and those who can’t end up behind bars. And, unlike court proceedings, pretrial diversion programs are under no oversight, nor can participants change their mind or have access to an attorney. Once someone decides to enter diversion, they either pay the money or get locked up.
The income derived from these programs can be substantial. According to the office of Louisiana’s legislative auditor, just one DA’s office reported $1.19 million of diversion-fee income in one year. The same report found that diversion fees accounted for 30% of some prosecutors’ income. In Brown County, Texas, defendants paid the district attorney over $250,000 since 2008 in diversion fees that he used for cell phones and travel. And in Alabama, the state legislature passed a law permitting DAs to design their own diversion programs and fee structure, creating a tiered system of justice.