Juvenile courts handle approximately 750,000 delinquency cases each year in the United States, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Many of these cases involve relatively minor offenses — things like trespassing, shoplifting or possessing alcohol, tobacco or marijuana. Given how much time and money we invest in prosecuting these offenses, it may be time for prosecutors to make a different choice: divert many of these cases from the juvenile justice system into carefully designed diversion programs.

A prosecutor’s role is to keep us safe and deliver justice to our communities, but in too many instances, the criminal prosecution of a child does not lead to more safety or justice. Diversion programs provide a structure to hold youth accountable, but they are much cheaper, more effective and more likely to bring safety and justice to all.

A pre-arrest diversion program in Duval County illustrates the potential success of taking a diversion approach. In 2016, only 27 percent of eligible youth in Duval County were diverted from the juvenile justice system. The other 73 percent of the county’s youth were arrested and referred to the juvenile courts. In 2020, these numbers flipped: 76 percent of eligible youth were diverted into teen court and neighborhood accountability programs, and the arrest rate of youth eligible for the diversion program was only 23 percent.

HIGH SUCCESS RATE

But even more notable is the astonishing success rate of the program. According to data from the State Attorney’s Office, 94 percent of the diverted young people completed the program’s requirements and have not had further contact with the justice system. Meanwhile, by avoiding unnecessary arrests and court hearings, the Fourth Judicial Circuit is saving taxpayers over $4.6 million per year.

In order to achieve this change, State Attorney Melissa Nelson gathered key stakeholders together and agreed to make some big adjustments to the diversion program. These changes should be a model for other states seeking to increase their own youth diversion rates.

First, like many other diversion programs across the country, the one in the Fourth Judicial Circuit allowed only prosecutors to decide when to divert a case. As a result, the program was underutilized. So, they shifted to a different model. Now, law enforcement officers use their discretion to determine when diversion, instead of arrest, is the most appropriate outcome in a case. According to national statistics, referrals from law enforcement account for 82 percent of all delinquency cases referred to the juvenile court. Allowing police to divert a young person for a minor offense on the spot prevents arrest, and allows prosecutors to focus their time on more serious cases. It is also a swifter and more certain response, which works better for holding youth accountable.

Next, they broadened the diversion program’s eligibility criteria. It’s common for prosecutors to limit diversion eligibility to first-time drug offenders and exclude many types of offenses, like person-on-person offenses that arise from school fights. While some exclusions may be necessary to protect public safety, emerging research shows that diverting most minor- and moderate-level offenses makes communities safer and leads to better outcomes for kids and families.

WRITING LETTERS

The third change was to create a feedback loop and track the program’s outcomes. Participants in the program write letters to police when they complete the program’s requirements. In many of these letters, they thank police for giving them a second chance and explain how the program held them accountable. Many police remember these young people and it is impactful for them to hear these stories. Along with robust data tracking showing only a 6 percent recidivism rate, this feedback loop helps police know the program is working, which makes it more likely that they will use diversion options in the future.

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The fourth major shift was to make diversion the rule, rather than the exception. Before the stakeholders met to change the program, police had to file paperwork explaining why a child was a good fit for diversion. Now, they do the opposite. If police want to arrest a child, they have to explain why diversion wasn’t an appropriate outcome. This sends the message to police that they should be thinking about alternatives to arrest in every encounter. And by trusting law enforcement to divert appropriate cases, the program also has the added benefit of allowing scarce prosecutorial resources to be focused on more serious crime.

By all accounts, the pre-arrest youth diversion program in Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit is a smashing success, and stakeholders across the country should learn from their example. Rather than encouraging prosecutors to churn through hundreds of thousands of cases per year, we should ask them to work with other stakeholders to design and invest in diversion programs. These programs hold young people accountable, lead to safer communities, save taxpayer dollars and are more likely to bring justice to all involved.

Image credit: r.classen