It depends. It depends on whether one asks this question as a criminal justice professional or as a behavioral health professional. In this instance I am talking specifically about programs to divert persons with mental illnesses who usually have co-occurring substance use disorders.
In the criminal justice (CJ) world, diversion is commonly used as a term to describe programs that offer an alternate to incarceration by dropping the pending charges facing a defendant. A deal is struck between the prosecutor and the defendant to agree to a set of terms about program participation, living arrangements, and associates, for example, in exchange for the charges being dropped. Because charges are dropped, the seriousness of the charges is usually not great. As generally used in the CJ world, diversion programs are not targeting defendants with mental illness.
By contrast, when used by behavioral health professionals or advocacy groups, diversion in the context of persons with mental illness and co-occurring disorders in contact with the justice system does not necessarily imply that charges are dropped. Whether one talks about diversion that is jail based, regular criminal court dockets or specialty criminal dockets- such as mental health courts and veterans treatment courts- criminal charges in diversion programs may use suspended prosecution, suspended sentencing or actually require a stipulation to the arrest report or a guilty plea. Charges may be dropped, but that is not the usual arrangement in these deals.
Because of this different use of the same term across disciplines, early discussions about developing jail diversion programs for persons with mental illnesses and co-occurring disorders can be met with significant prosecutorial and/or judicial resistance by those who see the defendant “beating a rap”. In fact, since such diversion programs can be run quite successfully with convictions or suspended criminal processing that keeps the case open until the treatment terms have been met, there is much common ground on both public safety and public health perspectives.