Policy makers have a moral, legal, and fiscal responsibility to divert juvenile offenders away from the criminal justice system at the earliest opportunity

New study shows youth diversion schemes are best for our young people and our communities

Posted on 28 Jun in


Eleo Tibbs reviews a new study demonstrating the positive effects of youth diversion

The consequences of a first time arrest can dramatically impact the course of someone’s life, especially a young person or a child. In the UK, the age of criminal responsibility is just ten years old. This means that even a low level crime can shape the rest of their life. For example, research shows that a criminal record can severely restrict a young person’s ability to get a job in the future.  This is why we at the Centre of Justice Innovation are committed to keeping children and young people away from the system through supporting point of arrest diversion schemes.

We are always on the lookout for new evidence about whether these schemes work, how they work and how they can be improved. We were therefore interested in new study by Campbell Collaboration on police-initiated youth diversion schemes. The report is a systematic review of 19 evaluations on youth diversion schemes which includes evaluations from the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK. It was conducted under the premise that ‘misconduct and misbehaviour is a normal part of adolescence’ which ‘sometimes crosses the line from disruptive or problematic to delinquent.

There were two key findings. First, it examines the rate of reoffending of those going through diversion schemes, compared to traditional sentencing. The study found that the re-offending rate for diversion was 44%, compared to 50% for traditional sentencing. The report also highlights the cost benefits of diversion in comparison to traditional processes. The authors conclude that ‘policy makers have a moral, legal, and fiscal responsibility to divert juvenile offenders away from the criminal justice system at the earliest opportunity.

The second key finding was that the types of intervention the child or young person received (mental health treatment, family counselling etc.) had no significant variable impact on reoffending rates. This suggests that the diversion itself is the key driver of better outcomes, rather than what the child gets.

These findings are in tune with our position. It has consistently been shown that deepening involvement of children and young people in the criminal justice system comes with not only a range of long-lasting collateral consequences but also actually increases the likelihood of reoffending. Youth diversion schemes, as shown through the Campbell Collaboration report, are a better way of addressing low level criminal behaviour. Police and policy makers looking to reduce criminal behaviour amongst young people and children should make sure that diversion is available and used wherever possible.

Over the course of the summer we will be mapping youth diversion across England and Wales. The project aims to fill a significant gap in information at a national level about even the most basic aspects of youth diversion. Knowledge of where schemes operate, the number of children and young people diverted, and the impact diversion has across the country is not routinely captured, collated or used to inform policy or practice. Despite its strong evidence base, with no central identification of gaps or the realities of provision, the case for continued investment can be hard to make.

Through better understanding of current provision, we can work to increase the use and effectiveness of diversion.