A summary of diversion programs for drug and drug-related offenders in Australia

Project Supporters:

Colonial Foundation Trust

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Project Main Description

In Australia there has long been a preference to divert minor drug users to drug education and/or treatment instead of applying the traditional criminal justice response. This project sought to provide a jurisdictional overview of all drug diversion programs operating in Australia as of January 2007 and to summarise the program criteria, their target groups, diversionary procedures and legislative basis and the “systems” of diversion provided in each state or territory.


As of January 2007, a total of 52 diversion programmes operated for drug and drug-related offenders in Australia, with 3-12 programmes in each state or territory. Most were relatively new additions, with 35 or 67% programs being adopted between 2000 and 2007. While we tend to think of drug diversion as involving drug offences, 55% programs targeted any offence(s) (45% targeted drug use/possession and drug-related offences). The most common diversionary response involved a therapeutic response (assessment and treatment)  with 49% compulsory and 17% voluntary.

Across Australia five main types of programs were provided: police diversion for cannabis only; police diversion for other illicit drugs; police diversion for non-drug specific offences; court diversion for minor drug/drug-related offending; court diversion for serious drug/drug-related offending. Each type had core similarities, but there were also programmatic differences in design e.g. eligibility criteria and program length.

Clear differences were also evident in relation to jurisdictional design including: the number of programs provided, the relative emphases on police versus court diversion, the choice of eligibility criteria and the system of coordinating diversion programs.

Implications for policy: These findings indicate:

  • a concerted commitment to provide diversionary responses across Australia and to the development of a more systematic and targeted approach;
  • many forms and types of diversion are provided in Australia
  • the design of programs and systems differs.
  • differences may affect the capacity of drug offenders to engage in diversion programs, to address the causes of drug use or to achieve compliance with criminal justice requirements. It may also affect the cost to government of providing diversion.

We suggest that by identifying good design features, there is a real opportunity to improve the operation and outcomes from current systems for diverting drug and drug-related offenders in Australia.

Implications for research: To identify programs and system designs that best work, it is important to examine the impacts of each: for example given both non-therapeutic and therapeutic approaches are provided to young drug offenders in Australia, which are more cost-effective at reducing future drug use? A second implication is the need for new methods to examine the impacts of different designs on program outcomes. For example, in relation to systems: To what extent does having more programs expand access? To what extent does it create challenges in coordination or reduce (or alternatively increase) cost-effectiveness? Is there an optimum mix of diversion programs? The diversity of program design provides many opportunities to learn and improve the designs of current diversion systems. The challenge remains that doing so will require the field to move beyond traditional single program studies.


Selected publications

  • Hughes, C. (2009). Away from the courts. Of Substance, 7(2), 20-21.
  • Hughes, C. (2010). Diversion: Australia’s alternative to drug law reform, Matters of Substance, 20(1), 15.  

Conference papers

  • Hughes, C. (2011, June). Keynote address: Diversion of drug offenders in Australia: Towards optimal system design. Paper presented to the ACT Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Sector: 4th Annual Conference, National Library of Australia, Canberra.
  • Hughes, C. (2009, November). An overview of the criminal justice diversionary responses in Australia and impacts to date, Presentation to the Swedish Delegation, NDARC, Sydney.
  • Hughes, C. (2008, March). The Drug Policy Modelling Program: New approaches to informing policy, practice and research - The diversion of drug and drug-related offenders: program and system designs. Presentation at the Criminal Justice Research Network, UNSW, Sydney.
Project Supporters

Colonial Foundation Trust

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