The Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program, an initiative that has used services the city already had in place, has more or less shut down the school-to-prison pipeline in Philadelphia and created a model for how to do so nationwide, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. In its first full year, 2014-15, the program cut arrests 54 percent from a year earlier. By the next year, arrests were down 64 percent. More than 1,000 arrests have been averted, yet schools have not become more dangerous; the number of serious behavioral incidents declined; there were about 1,000 fewer incidents each year than in the year before the program began.
The concept is simple: Give first-time, low-level offenders a one-time break – and, instead of criminalizing the behavior, address its root causes. It required a new way of thinking for police. Kevin Bethel, 53, was a deputy commissioner when he conceived the idea in 2014 after he learned about current movements in juvenile justice and the collateral consequences of arrests. After 29 years on the police force, he began to view juvenile arrests as a public-health problem. He says, “I was shocked to see we were locking up 1,600 kids a year. And I was shocked to see the offenses kids were being locked up for.” Kids as young as 10 were being arrested for bringing scissors to school, or for pushing in the hallways. He found that 85 percent of the kids who were arrested ended up in a diversion program through the District Attorney’s Office. He worried that by then some damage had already been done.