This blog is a condensed version of Carmen Robin-D'Cruz's essay in the Monument Book 'Crime and Consequence', available for free here.
Children come into contact with the justice system every day, often for unwise but relatively minor behaviour. Unfortunately, the consequences of being caught, arrested and formally processed can be serious, affecting future education and employment opportunities. Moreover, evidence shows that formal criminal justice system processing of children can have a backfire effect, making them more likely to reoffend. Instead, research shows that point-of-arrest youth diversion is a better way of addressing low-level criminal behaviour, reducing reoffending, lowering costs, and generating better outcomes for children. These schemes involve short assessments followed by light-touch, voluntary programming.
The backfire effect of formal processing
Years of large-scale criminological research demonstrate that offending behaviour peaks in the mid-teens before dropping steeply at the onset of young adulthood, then declining more slowly.  While a small number of children’s offending will continue long into their adulthood, the vast majority are essentially law-abiding children temporarily drawn into adolescent delinquency and who quickly grow out of this phase as developmental maturity proceeds. In other words, children tend to grow out of crime. However, evidence shows that formal criminal justice system processing can arrest this process, leading to more crime. An international meta-analysis, the most comprehensive analysis to date of the impact of formal justice system processing, concluded that formal processing ‘appears to not have a crime control effect, and across all measures, appears to increase delinquency. It highlighted that, ‘rather than providing a public safety benefit, processing a juvenile through the system appears to have a negative or backfire effect.’
The evidence for youth diversion
The evidence base consistently demonstrates that when similar groups of children – comparable in demographics, offences and offending histories – are matched, and one group is formally processed while the other is diverted, the diversion groups do better. Youth diversion works because it avoids children feeling labelled as ‘criminals’ by the justice system and because it seeks to minimise and, in many cases, eliminates children’s contact with negative peer pressure. If not avoided, these contacts may imprint impressionable children with new negative attitudes and behaviours, and may increase the risk of continued offending. Additionally, youth diversion avoids the collateral consequences of formal processing, such as interference with education, training and employment. Such consequences can impede rehabilitation well beyond the end of the direct punishment imposed.
As well as delivering better outcomes for children, youth diversion is also more cost effective than standard system processing. It delivers: immediate cost avoidance across criminal justice agencies, primarily in terms of the saved police, prosecution, and court time; longer term savings associated with reduced reoffending; and savings linked to facilitating access to support services and addressing emergent needs earlier.
Backed by a compelling evidence base, a strong financial case, and years of successful operation in some areas, youth diversion represents an effective alternative to formal criminal justice processing for low-level offending by children. It is vital in responding to children who commit criminal offences in a way that fulfils the principal aim of the youth justice system, to prevent offending.
 Bottoms, A. (2006). Crime Prevention for Youth at Risk: Some Theoretical Considerations. Resource Material Series No. 68, 21-34 Moffitt, T. (1993). Adolescent-Limited and Life-Course-Persistent Antisocial Behavior: A Developmental Taxonomy, Psychological Review, 100 (4), 674-701.
 Moffitt, T. (1993). Adolescent-Limited and Life-Course-Persistent Antisocial Behavior: A Developmental Taxonomy, Psychological Review, 100 (4), 674-701.
 Petrosino, A., Turpin-Petrosino, C., Guckenberg, S. (2010). Formal System Processing of Juveniles: Effects on Delinquency. Campbell Systematic Reviews.
 See, for example: Wilson, D., Brennan, I., Olaghere, A. (2018). Police-initiated diversion for youth to prevent future delinquent behaviour. Campbell Systematic Reviews; McAra, L., McVie, S. (2010). Youth Crime and Justice: Key Messages from the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime. Criminology and Criminal Justice 10 (2) 179-209.
 See, for example, Schur, E. (1973). Radical non-intervention: Rethinking the delinquency problem. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
 Wilson, H., Hoge, R. (2013). The Effect of Youth Diversion Programs on Recidivism: A Meta-Analytic Review. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 40 (5), 497-518.