Divert Youth From Prosecution With Promising State and Local Efforts

Posted May 14, 2024
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Two young men — one Black and one Brown — sit side by side at a table while working on an elaborate project involving colorful wires.

Pro­tect and Redi­rect: America’s Grow­ing Move­ment to Divert Youth Out of the Jus­tice Sys­tem dis­cuss­es key pol­i­cy and prac­tice reforms relat­ed to address­ing ado­les­cent mis­be­hav­ior out­side of the jus­tice sys­tem. The new brief from the Sen­tenc­ing Project pro­vides exam­ples from 23 states and eight local­i­ties that are expand­ing and improv­ing the use of juve­nile diver­sion.

Diver­sion typ­i­cal­ly yields bet­ter out­comes than arrest and pros­e­cu­tion in juve­nile courts. Its ben­e­fits include:

  • Far low­er like­li­hood of sub­se­quent arrests; and
  • sig­nif­i­cant­ly greater suc­cess in edu­ca­tion and employment.

The Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, which fund­ed the brief, is call­ing for juris­dic­tions to sig­nif­i­cant­ly expand their use of diver­sion and address pre­dictable ado­les­cent mis­be­hav­ior out­side of the court sys­tem. Put sim­ply, juve­nile diver­sion pro­grams and approach­es hold youth account­able for their behav­ior and help young peo­ple to mature into adult­hood with­out being thrown off track by the neg­a­tive effects of jus­tice-sys­tem involve­ment. Greater and more tar­get­ed use of diver­sion has also shown promise to reduce the racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties in youth jus­tice systems.

Young peo­ple suc­ceed when fam­i­lies, com­mu­ni­ties and schools respond first to delin­quent con­duct — not the courts,” says Bur­gun­di Alli­son, asso­ciate direc­tor for Diver­sion and Pre­ven­tion with the Casey Foundation.

Nation­al Juve­nile Jus­tice Reform Efforts

Pro­tect and Redi­rect describes reform efforts across the coun­try, includ­ing states with both Repub­li­can and Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nors and state leg­isla­tive majori­ties. These reforms have the fol­low­ing objectives:

  • Expand the use of diver­sion. Cre­ate new laws, pro­grams or path­ways to increase the use of diver­sion and steer low­er-risk youth with sig­nif­i­cant human ser­vice needs away from the jus­tice system.
  • Address long­stand­ing dis­par­i­ties in diver­sion. Under­take com­pre­hen­sive reviews to iden­ti­fy and address prob­lem­at­ic prac­tices that have result­ed in Black youth being far less like­ly to be divert­ed from juve­nile court than their white peers, with big dis­par­i­ties for all offense types. Revise diver­sion-relat­ed poli­cies that often dis­ad­van­tage youth of color.
  • Embrace new prac­tices to increase the suc­cess of divert­ed youth. Expand the use of restora­tive jus­tice as an alter­na­tive to for­mal court involve­ment; sub­stan­tial­ly increase the use of pre-arrest diver­sion, which is even more effec­tive than diver­sion from court fol­low­ing an arrest; and pro­vide sup­port to divert­ed youth or take oth­er steps to min­i­mize the share of youth who are returned to court for non­com­pli­ance with diversion.
  • Improve the col­lec­tion and shar­ing of data to bet­ter inform diver­sion poli­cies and pro­grams.

Promis­ing State and Local Diver­sion Reform Efforts

David­son Coun­ty, Ten­nessee, home to Nashville, is among the exam­ples of promis­ing state and local diver­sion reform efforts that Pro­tect and Redi­rect cites. The court has led efforts to triple the share of delin­quen­cy cas­es respond­ed to by local com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions rather than the jus­tice system.

The brief also cites Har­ris Coun­ty, Texas, the nation’s third-largest coun­ty and home to Hous­ton. It cre­at­ed a new mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar fund­ing stream to sup­port com­mu­ni­ty-based ser­vices for youth involved in or at risk of jus­tice sys­tem involve­ment. The coun­ty more than dou­bled the share of cas­es divert­ed from 2017 to 2021 while increas­ing Black youths’ share of divert­ed cas­es from one-fourth to near­ly half. 

Pro­tect and Redi­rect is the first in The Sen­tenc­ing Project’s five-part series on diver­sion. Four addi­tion­al briefs offer prac­ti­cal insights and rec­om­men­da­tions for legal prac­ti­tion­ers, youth jus­tice law­mak­ers and advo­cates focused on:

  1. reduc­ing racial and eth­nic disparities;
  2. best prac­tices for juve­nile diversion;
  3. using data to reduce dis­par­i­ties and improve out­comes in diver­sion; and
  4. effec­tive mes­sag­ing to pro­mote juve­nile diver­sion reform.

The brief notes, Tak­en togeth­er, the many reform efforts described in this issue brief sug­gest the begin­nings of what may become — and should become — a fun­da­men­tal shift in America’s approach to youth justice.”

Casey’s Col­lec­tion of Research and Resources on Diversion

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