WASHINGTON (September 7, 2022) –– A new study released today by R Street’s Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties team, co-authored by Sarah Anderson, Lisel Petis and Jillian Snider, assesses juvenile arrest rates and deflection efforts for all 50 states and provides a state-by-state overview and comparison of deflection programs.

Between 1996 and 2019, juvenile arrests declined by 74 percent, and between 1995 and 2019, juvenile incarceration dropped by 70 percent with no corresponding uptick in overall or violent juvenile crime. This decline in juvenile arrests and confinement can be attributed to states and localities moving away from overly punitive, “tough on crime” juvenile policies and toward diversion initiatives aimed at limiting juvenile interaction with the justice system.

Of the many diversion models in use, pre-arrest diversion led by law enforcement—often referred to as deflection—has received comparatively little attention. This study fills that research gap and lays out the many benefits of juvenile deflection.

“There are thousands of juvenile diversion programs in use around the United States, but there’s no complete picture nationwide because they are largely decentralized and not operated on a statewide basis,” said Sarah Anderson, associate director of Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties at the R Street Institute.

“Research supports the use of deflection. It indicates that diverting low-risk youth early in the juvenile justice process, such as at the initial point of contact with law enforcement, is better at reducing recidivism than formal court processing,” said Lisel Petis, senior fellow for Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties. “Non-arrested youth are more likely to be successful in completing school and enrolling in college than their arrested counterparts. Youth deflected from custodial arrest and formal court processing also avoid the negative collateral consequences that flow from arrest and detention and that fuel ongoing justice system involvement.”

Jillian Snider, policy director of Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties, said, “These programs save taxpayers millions of dollars by mitigating confinement and court costs. They also reduce burdens that law enforcement, prosecutors and juvenile courts face in processing low-risk youth, thereby enabling more resources to shift to the investigation and prosecution of high-risk, violent juvenile offenders.”

Despite these benefits, deflection remains underused, as evidenced by the fact that the majority of youth referred to juvenile court and confined continue to be those who have committed minor offenses.  To best address and prevent juvenile crime, state and federal policymakers should prioritize collecting reliable and accurate data on law-enforcement-led juvenile diversion programs and make that information publicly available.

Being shuffled into the criminal justice system at a young age is a surefire way to be subjected to unintended consequences that could ultimately lead to higher offense and recidivism rates. States and localities have made real progress in reducing juvenile incarceration rates, but more must be done to protect societies’ youngest members.

Read the full policy study here.

Featured Publications