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Diverting young people away from criminal justice, not punishing them, should be a policy maker’s imperative

By: Iain Brennan and Ajima Olaghere

A new Campbell Collaboration policy brief notes “there is no evidence that custodial sentences make for a safer society.” This evidence is consistent across a variety of contexts with different types of offenders and provides the most comprehensive evidence to date that, as a means of behavior change, punishment through justice systems is counter-productive. This is particularly true for young people: our new systematic review contributes evidence that, for juvenile offenders, diversion away from formal sanctions at the earliest possible stage is the best option for them and society.

Consistently, official records and self-report evidence have shown that offending peaks in late adolescence and, for most, stops there without the aid of social or criminal justice intervention. A large percentage of offending by young people is low-level, such as drug possession, antisocial behavior and criminal damage. Admittedly, these offences are not harmless and a public policy maker’s instinct may be to punish this offending, but our review shows that pushing these young people through costly and stigmatizing criminal justice procedures increases the chance they will commit further harm.

Specifically, our new (soon to be published) Campbell systematic review shows that policy makers can expect slight reductions in future delinquent behavior among low-risk youth when police officers initiate and steer youth away from formal processing through techniques such as diversion, diversion with services, and restorative cautions.

Our review summarized 19 high-quality studies from the United Kingdom, North America, and Australia. While the results across time and country were generally consistent, additional studies from other countries with similarly low ages of criminal responsibility are needed. We found little difference between diversion only and diversion with services, which suggests we have much more to learn about why young people do and do not reoffend. Despite these gaps in our knowledge, an implication of our review is that policy makers should not only expand the use of early diversion models with low-risk youth, but also extend these approaches to low-risk adults.

While our results are modest, this review is the best evidence to date to indicate that police-led diversion improves outcomes for young people and society. Therefore, based on our evidence, we believe that policy makers have a moral and fiscal responsibility to divert juvenile offenders away from criminal justice systems at the earliest possible stage.

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