Each year, about 18,000 kids in the state of Pennsylvania have some type of contact with the criminal justice system. Most of these young people are in trouble for relatively minor behaviors, like failing to pay a court-ordered fine or a fee, shoplifting, disorderly conduct or possession of drugs.

For youth adjudicated in Pennsylvania’s juvenile courts, the most common outcome is formal probation. This is the case even though 81% of these cases are misdemeanors and close to half of the kids placed on probation are determined to be at low risk to reoffend.

While putting kids on probation may not seem like a big deal, research shows probation isn’t effective for low-risk kids and is often a pathway to deeper criminal justice system involvement. Formal probation comes with close supervision and a long list of conditions. For many kids, this means more opportunities to miss appointments and make mistakes. Indeed, recent data from Pennsylvania shows that technical violations of probation – things like missing appointments with probation officers, staying out past curfew, or failing to keep up with court-ordered fines and fees, can, and often does, result in kids being removed from their homes.

But Pennsylvania lawmakers may soon turn the tide. Just last week, the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s Bipartisan Juvenile Justice Task Force issued a set of recommendations to improve the way the state responds to justice-involved youth. One of their recommendations is to divert more youth who commit low-level offenses from the criminal justice system entirely. And another is to expand diversion options across the state, so this alternative is available to kids regardless of where they live. While doing less in response to youth misbehavior may seem counterintuitive to some, there is strong data behind this approach, both in Pennsylvania and in other states.

Diversion is not a new thing in Pennsylvania, but it isn’t used consistently throughout the state. Indeed, whether it’s an option for your child probably depends on where you live. Here is how it works. When a kid gets in trouble, a written allegation of their conduct is sent to the probation intake department. At that point, Pennsylvania’s probation officers decide whether to proceed with the case or divert it from the justice system. Under Pennsylvania law, probation officers are given broad discretion to extend diversion offers to almost any kid, when they determine that diversion is both safe and appropriate.

When a child’s case is diverted, it is not handled by the court, the child does not appear before a judge and the child is not placed on probation. Instead, the case is handled informally, and a specialized unit of the probation department oversees it. This unit works with each child to create an individualized diversion agreement. This agreement might include writing an apology letter, completing community service hours or participating in a restorative justice program. The matter is resolved quickly and the child’s contact with the justice system is minimal.

When diversion is used in Pennsylvania, it is wildly successful. Eighty percent of youth successfully complete all of the requirements of diversion programs, and there is no further escalation in the case. In the small percentage of cases where a child is not successful, the probation department can seek to have the case move forward in the justice system.

There is great momentum behind this approach nationwide. Like Pennsylvania, other states have begun to discover that for children with limited justice system involvement, diversion is cheaper and more effective. For example, a new study shows that for low-risk kids and first-time offenders, diverting kids from the justice system leads to better outcomes across the board – diverted kids are less likely to reoffend and less likely to have ties with delinquent peers. They are more likely to graduate from high school and much more hopeful about their future opportunities and potential to succeed.

To be clear, diverting kids from the justice system does not mean that they won’t be held accountable for their behavior. It simply means that we try a less formal approach before using the resources and training of criminal justice professionals to respond to a kid’s conduct.

Kids make mistakes. It’s normal. It’s how they learn and grow. But for most kids, and most mistakes, the criminal justice system is not an effective answer. And all kids – no matter where in Pennsylvania they live – should be considered eligible for a second chance.

The Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force should be applauded for their work to expand diversion and make it an available option to all kids throughout the state. Giving most kids a chance to stay out of the justice system makes sense. It is cheaper, keeps families together, leads to less crime and is the right thing to do.

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