Diverting Youth From Justice System Can Lower Recidivism, Panel Told

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Kevin Bethel, a former Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner, was dismayed in 2014 to learn that police officers in his city were making 1,600 arrests of students each year— many of them for relatively minor offenses such as marijuana possession, fighting, or bringing weapons into school as a defense against bullying.

Bethel believed that most such cases could be handled by sending accused students to various social service providers rather than processing them in the juvenile justice system. He devised a diversion program with a goal of cutting the arrest total in half.

The effort has far achieved that goal, reducing arrests to only 456 in the program’s fourth year, Bethel told a seminar sponsored by the Committee on Law and Justice of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine  in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Repeat criminality is also lower among the diverted students, only 14 percent compared with 27 percent of youths who went through the arrest process, Bethel said.

Similar programs using a strategy known as “diversion,” which sends justice-involved youth to social services rather than to detention cells, are winning increased support among authorities, the seminar was told.

Police departments around the U.S. made more than 620,000 arrests of youths under 18 in 2017. It was a much lower total than the crime-prone 1990s–there were more than 2.5. million juvenile arrests in 1998–but critics say the current numbers still are too high.

Some 140,000 youth arrests in 2017 were for property crimes and nearly 100,000 for assaults that didn’t rise to the level of “aggravated.”

Juvenile justice advocates contend that many of these cases need not result in arrests at all, but could be better handled by diversion strategies.

Another diversion concept is known as restorative justice, in which accused youth, instead of proceeding through the juvenile justice system, meet with their victims to discuss the offense and what can be done to “address the harm to the victim” and coming up with a “a plan for making things right,” says the website of Community Works West, which holds “restorative community conferences” in two California counties.

In Alameda County, 91 percent of victims reported that they were satisfied with the program, Community Works’ Jenna Kress told the Committee on Law and Justice.

A third diversion program, “Choose To Change” in Chicago, was described by Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which runs it.

Youth from high-crime areas are involved in a six-month program combining what the Crime Lab calls “trauma-informed cognitive behavioral therapy with holistic mentorship and advocacy.”

As described by a New York Times columnist, group-therapy sessions with juveniles who have been involved in violence shows them “how their traumatic experiences are running their lives — how ’emotional leftovers’ can lead them to automatic behavior that makes things worse.

The sessions give them tools they can use to slow down and think through their options in times of stress.”

Some 500 youths have gone through the program in several neighborhoods during the last four years. Preliminary results of a study “suggest that participation in the program leads to dramatic decreases in arrests,” the Crime Lab says.

The committee also heard from Lael Chester of Columbia University’s Justice Lab speak on the development both in the U.S. and Europe of special programs for “emerging adults” aged from 18 to 25 years old who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime and the prison population.

Unlike the U.S., for example, Germany keep offenders between 18 and 20 years old in its juvenile justice system, which experts say increases their chances of successful rehabilitation that they might not receive in the adult criminal justice system.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

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