Diversion in Australia


In Australia, the possession, use, and supply of some drugs (e.g. cocaine) is illegal and carries penalties. The use of alcohol and other drugs (AOD) can also contribute to other criminal activities (e.g. theft). This has implications for people who use AOD as they may be at increased risk of involvement with the criminal justice system. Nationally in 2018–19, illicit drug offences accounted for 1 in 5 (20%) of all offenders proceeded against by police (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2020). Similarly, almost 1 in 3 (30%) police detainees in Australia in 2017 reported that their offence was related to illicit drugs (Voce & Sullivan 2019). The relationship between AOD use and involvement with the criminal justice system is also evident in the rate of recent illicit drug use among prisoners. Almost two–thirds (65%) of Australian prison entrants in 2018 reported past 12–month illicit drug use, compared to 16.5% of the general population (AIHW 2019). Importantly, most drug–related offences are consumer–based (e.g. possession, use), not producer–based.

What are drug diversion programs?

Drug diversion programs were implemented in Australia in the 1980s, due in part to a rising number of drug–related offenders being incarcerated and evidence that punitive measures do not prevent drug use or drug–related crime. Additionally, people who use drugs may experience greater drug–related harms while in prison (e.g. sharing injecting equipment).

Police and court diversion programs

In Australia, there are two key types of drug diversion programs:

  • Police diversion normally happens after a person is apprehended by the police. It is typically for minor drug offences (e.g. possession), and normally involves a caution or fine, and sometimes mandatory drug assessment or education session.

  • Court diversion happens after a charge has been laid. It is typically for offences where criminal behaviour was related to drug use (e.g. burglary), and may involve pre– or post–sentence programs, such as drug court, for people with repeat offences.

Drug diversion programs and AOD treatment services

In Australia, a substantial minority of all AOD treatment clients are referred via diversion programs. Understanding the characteristics of diversion clients may have key policy implications for the AOD sector.

The presented data visualisation draws on data from the AODTS NMDS and includes all clients with a valid statistical linkage key (SLK) who received at least one closed treatment episode with police or court diversion as the source of referral in the given year. Given that most diversion episodes in 2018–19 were for a client's own drug use, only these clients are included in the displays.

Diversion in the AODTS NMDS

In the five years to 2018–19:

  • between 35,000 and 40,100 clients were referred via diversion programs each year
  • the number of closed treatment episodes provided to diversion clients rose from 51,100 in 2014–15 to 61,900 in 2016–17, then fell to 53,800 in 2018–19
  • each year, most diversion clients were referred via courts rather than police.

The visualisation shows that 151,775 treatment episodes were provided to non-diversion clients in 2018–19 nationally, compared with 53,763 episodes provided to diversion clients. Most diversion episodes related to court diversion clients (36,554) as opposed to police diversion clients (19,911).

Visualisation not available for printing


Australian Bureau of Statistics 2020. Recorded crime - Offenders, 2018–19. Cat. no.: 4519.0. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 11 May 2020.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2019. The health of Australia's prisoners 2018. Cat. no.: PHE 246. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 24 March 2020.

Voce A & Sullivan T 2019. Drug use monitoring in Australia: Drug use among police detainees, 2018. Statistical Reports no. 18. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology. Viewed 11 May 2020.