For young people who have committed minor crimes, police-led diversion should be the default

Written by David B. Wilson, Iain Brennan and Ajima Olaghere

A first arrest is a pivotal moment in the life of a young person. The outcome of the arrest can have profound implications. In some cases, criminal charges can be the first step on a path overrun with reduced opportunities, further criminal behavior, and victimization. However, if the young person admits the offense, an arresting officer often has discretion in how they deal with the young person: charge them with a crime and push them into the criminal justice system or offer them a ‘diversion’, such as a verbal warning or a referral to a support service.

Consistently, official records and self-report evidence indicates offending peaks in late adolescence and, for most, stops there without the aid of social or criminal justice intervention. A large percentage of youthful offending is low-level and involves drug possession, antisocial behavior and criminal damage. Admittedly, these offenses are not harmless and an instinctual reaction may be to punish this type of offending. However, evidence suggests that contact with the criminal justice system may actually increase the chances of reoffending by creating stigma, exposing the young person to other criminal peers, and close off employment opportunities. Knowing if diversion offers better outcomes than traditional processing can help us make decisions that improve the lives of young people, but also reduce the number of victims and the financial and social burden of crime.

Our new Campbell systematic review, funded by the Jacobs Foundation, shows that diversion offers better outcomes than formal processing: we 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. Assuming a 50 percent reoffending rate for traditional processing, diverted youth reoffended about 44 percent of the time. While our results may appear modest, the disproportionately large amount of crime committed by first-time, young offenders means that greater use of diversion could have a dramatic impact on the total number of crimes and victims. Furthermore, as diversion is generally less costly than formal processing, greater use of diversion is also likely to save money.

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 adults. 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, legal, and fiscal responsibility to divert juvenile offenders away from criminal justice systems at the earliest opportunity.

Read the plain language summary of the review.

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