Reducing Youth Arrests Promotes Community Well-Being
A recent policy paper from R Street Institute provides youth justice professionals and decision-makers with a roadmap to minimize young people’s contact with the justice system. Data-Driven Deflection: A Systems Approach to Reducing Juvenile Arrests summarizes research on how pre-arrest diversion programs across the country are leveraging data to reduce youth arrests. The paper features case studies from Florida and Cambridge, Massachusetts, that emphasize the critical role data can play in reducing racial disparities and guiding implementation.
Diversion, also known as “deflection,” redirects young people away from the formal justice system at the earliest point of contact with law enforcement, avoiding the adverse consequences associated with an arrest. Instead, young people are held accountable for their behavior in other ways, such as community service.
“Diverting young people away from court involvement without arrest leads to much better outcomes for them and for community well-being, while also saving significant amounts of money,” says Liane Rozzell, senior policy associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which supported the report’s publication.
Civil Citations in Florida
Data-Driven Deflection notes robust data collection has made Florida’s civil citation program one of the most mature and successful deflection initiatives in the country. Civil citations are akin to traffic tickets that never become part of a young person’s criminal record if the youth completes community service or pays restitution. Three years after receiving a citation, youth are 30% less likely to recidivate compared to those who were arrested.
Yet, data also revealed that citation-eligible Black youth in Gainesville, Florida, were being arrested at a much higher rate than eligible white youth. In response, the chief of police introduced an extra layer of oversight to keep more non-white youth out of detention.
A Police-Led Deflection Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts
The publication also highlights the Cambridge Safety Net Collaborative, a police-led deflection program that reframes the role of law enforcement from antagonists to advocates. Safety Net relies on specially trained “youth resource officers” to coordinate outreach, prevention and support activities. The goal is to address service fragmentation by blending funding streams, case planning processes and staff expertise across the law enforcement, child welfare, education and behavioral health systems. Since the start of the program, Safety Net has been able to connect youth with mental health treatment more often than if they were arrested.
While juvenile recidivism and overall arrests in Cambridge have declined at a statistically significant rate compared to local and national averages, data analysis revealed the positive effects began to diminish over a two- and three-year period. Officials were able to make data-driven suggestions — such as booster interventions at 18 months post-deflection — to reduce the risk of long-term recidivism.
How Diversion Leads to Better Outcomes
According to research, the more contact young people have with the juvenile justice system, the higher their risk of negative outcomes. Locking up teenagers severs social ties and delays educational milestones, which only increases the chances of further criminal behavior and subsequent arrests. Once a youth becomes entrenched in the youth justice system, they are up to three times more likely to be convicted of a crime as an adult.
“I like to think of juvenile deflection like fixing a leaky faucet before it breaks, instead of having to mop up a flooded house afterwards,” says Logan Seacrest, the report’s author and a resident fellow at the R Street Institute. “One of the main benefits of pre-arrest diversion is this focus on early intervention, enabling benefits to compound over time.”