Diversion, Positive Youth Development, Restorative Practices: Connecting the Dots

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diversion: Boy of color with crossed arms in front of team of children at table.

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“Effective, evidence-based practices that support the wellness and resiliency of youth in school and in the community are emerging.” —Models for Change (2010)

Adolescence — the unique journey between childhood and adulthood — can either be a safe place for positive youth development or a “bridge over troubled waters” as young people form their identities. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) acknowledges that “experimentation and risk-taking behaviors, sensitivity to peers and other social influences” are foreseeable results of this critical life stage. For most of us, our offending behaviors ceased as we matured into adults (with the help of pro-social supports).

diversion: Angela Bell (headshot), coordinator of Montgomery County (Penn.) Disproportionate Minority Contact project, woman with shoulder-length black hair, glasses, white and beige sleeveless top in front of bookcase

Angela Bell

Only a small percentage of young people continue into adulthood the kind of anti-social behavior that rises to the level of justice involvement. Recent studies suggest that the most successful programs provide intensive, comprehensive services based on the youths’ level of risk for offending over an extended period in community-based programs. Ideally, community-based alternatives will reduce stigma and recidivism, provide youth with role models and positive peers, improve school engagement and increase overall levels of youth functioning.

For more information on dual status youth, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Dual Status Youth

In Pennsylvania, the child welfare and juvenile justice systems mandated residential placement for more than 3,700 foster care children in 2017. According to this Report, approximately half of all children placed in residential facilities have “no documented clinical or behavioral need” that would mandate restrictive placement. Since it is well documented that institutional placements harm young people academically, developmentally and sometimes physically, it is also foreseeable that such environments threaten their positive potential for the future, tainted with the stigma of homelessness, unemployment and incarceration.

diversion: Leslie Jones (headshot), civil rights and criminal defense attorney, smiling woman with short dark hair, green top

Leslie Jones

It has also been documented that youth who are offered unclear expectations or who experience negative influences are at higher risk of engaging in delinquency, violent behavior and dropping out of school. Research suggests that pro-social supports offered by family members, neighbors, teachers and peers can reduce the likelihood of antisocial behavior. These “buffers” (also known as protective factors) include positive relationships with adults, leading to healthy beliefs and clear standards of behavior.

According to researchers at the University of Washington, such “protective bonding” requires the following conditions for young people to actively participate and contribute in community: opportunities (developmentally appropriate and meaningful interaction with pro-social others); skills as a measure of success (highlighting individual assets/strengths and offering a basis for value among others); and consistent reinforcement (meaningful/specific praise and recognition for efforts and accomplishments).

Benefits, complications of diversion programs

One option for the pro-social engagement of at-risk youth is juvenile diversion. Juvenile diversion programs provide alternatives to traditional juvenile justice system involvement, with the potential to help young people develop into healthy adults and engaged citizens. According to the OJJDP, diversion is preferred when possible due to the “criminogenic effects” of formal system processing and/or incarceration. Additionally, “alternatives are better for long-term youth development.”

Recognizing that diversion is both “a process (i.e., providing alternatives to adjudications for alleged juvenile offenders) and a program (i.e., the services the youth receives in place of a formal adjudication),” Models for Change (2010) outlined its goals in Pennsylvania — accountability, rehabilitation, protection — by balancing better outcomes for vulnerable youth while managing risk to public safety.

Additionally, diversion can occur at any stage in the juvenile justice system. It should prioritize youth-specific needs and risk factors to maximize successful completion: informed consent, family involvement, victim input, measurable objectives, specific actions for completion within a specified time and a formal reviewing/monitoring process for compliance (which includes rewards and consequences).

To evaluate effectiveness, outcome measurement should at least include: “demographic characteristics of diverted youth to ensure that diversion is made available to all eligible youth and is fairly administered; completion rates of youth; re-arrest rates for diverted youth; the degree to which the victims of diverted youth are satisfied with the diversion process; and, the degree to which collaboration between all key stakeholders has been accomplished through multi-agency memoranda of understanding, protocols, and trainings.”

Research shows that youth with diverse and complex needs struggle to complete diversion programs. For example, eligibility requirements with strict communication, financial and travel requirements discriminate against youth from economically challenged communities. As a result, diversion programs should offer “reasonable requirements, early feedback and assistance, and helpful rather than punitive responses to requirement failures.”

Additionally, law enforcement can play a significant role in reducing juvenile arrests. A program initiated by former Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel realized a 71% decrease in the first year of implementing “a discipline philosophy that rewards positive behaviors, considers the impact of trauma on students, and rethinks the single-minded reliance on punishment.” According to this study, “there exists an injurious relationship between early childhood trauma and subsequent chronic antisocial behavior above and beyond the influence of major risk factors for crime (gender, race, age of onset, impulsivity, peer influence, and socio-economic status).”

Pennsylvania pilot program

In 2011, in Montgomery County, Penn., the Racial Justice Improvement Project (RJIP) — funded by the American Bar Association and following the suggested protocol from Models of Change — created a successful preadjudication diversion program with support from all key juvenile justice stakeholders.

Based on statewide data collected in 2010 to determine the most common reasons for juvenile petitions and summary arrests, along with the criminal offenses that produced the highest disparities in the municipalities targeted, the RJIP Youth Aid Panel Pilot Program was developed to effectively address the issue of disproportionate arrest for black juveniles in one Montgomery County township with a high RRI (relative risk index) for retail theft. The RJIP worked closely with the targeted township through its police chief (who served on the RJIP Task Force) to collect consistent and current data to reveal the barriers to parity in juvenile arrests.

The RJIP concluded that an analysis of the availability, use and completion of the Montgomery County District Attorney’s (MCDA) Youth Aid Panel (YAP) — the only official prearrest diversion program for juveniles accused of certain summary and misdemeanor offenses — would provide the best understanding of any issues contributing to prearrest disparities. Furthermore, because successful completion of YAP negates arrest, the RJIP recognized YAP as key to reducing Montgomery County’s disproportionate arrest statistics.

Consequently, the RJIP implemented three programmatic policy changes:

  • expand YAP eligibility criteria to allow black juveniles the opportunity to complete prearrest diversion
  • implement an objective referral process for law enforcement
  • offer case management services to ensure the juveniles receive the support needed to successfully complete YAP.

With a 92% completion rate, the RJIP demonstrated that:

  • the YAP eligibility expansion successfully allowed more black juveniles to participate
  • the objective YAP law enforcement referral standard was successful, and a county-wide standard policy should be implemented
  • the addition of case management services offered to YAP participants increased the completion rates for black juveniles.
  • For more information on Racial-Ethnic Fairness, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Racial-Ethnic Fairness

Other jurisdictions have also discovered the benefits of cross-sector collaboration to challenging racial disparities in diversion programs. Launched in Seattle in 2011, Washington state’s Public Defender Association’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programming has grown into a national movement. “By exposing neighborhood and law enforcement partners to the trauma origins of many dysfunctional coping behaviors, people struggling with very difficult challenges are humanized, and genuine relationships established and deepened.”

Inspired by the RJIP, the Montgomery County Public Defender’s (MCPD) Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) Working Group began diversion programming (Youth Law Enforcement Forums and Youth Courts) that incorporate restorative justice models to encourage high-risk youth to increase their “sense of accountability” to peers/family and community/victims. Since 2014, MCPD has maintained one of the longest-running Youth Courts in the region, empowering high school students to explore harm and accountability while offering respondents restorative dispositions unavailable in zero tolerance models like detention and suspension. Youth serve in the roles of judge, bailiff, youth advocate, jury foreperson and jury. There are more than 1,500 Youth Courts nationwide utilizing positive peer pressure to influence behavior, while also teaching its members how to use critical thinking, analysis and teamwork to resolve conflict.

As a result of the relationships established through the RJIP, Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office has agreed to include Youth Court panel members as decision-makers for YAP. By offering “protective bonding” to nonviolent juveniles who have committed a criminal offense — while connecting them to law enforcement agencies, public resources and trained adult volunteers — YAP respondents will be offered the opportunities, skills and consistent reinforcement needed to grow into healthy community contributors.

As Kevin Bethel’s program demonstrated, when juvenile justice stakeholders are trained and responsive to the trauma needs of the population they serve, serious incident reports decrease as awareness and prevention strategies and programming increase. It is encouraging that a 2017 review by the National Conference of State Legislators revealed a spike in legislation across the country related to trauma-informed care.

After nearly 30 years, the popularity pendulum is again swinging in favor of juvenile diversion. Juvenile diversion programs — with race-conscious eligibility criteria, which prioritize program completion — have the potential to dismantle the policies and systemic barriers through which racialized youth become criminalized when services exist (child care, mixed-income housing, therapy, job training/placement) to transform the social conditions in the communities where they live. Where only 1% of justice-involved youth graduate from college, we must commit to keeping kids connected to family, peers and community for better outcomes for all of us.

Angela Bell, Esquire, currently serves as coordinator of the Montgomery County (Penn.) Disproportionate Minority Contact Community and Strategic Planning project in addition to serving as the Montgomery County Racial Justice Improvement Project task force facilitator.

Leslie Faith Jones, Esquire, is a civil rights and criminal defense attorney who has represented children and indigent adults in federal and state courts since 2001. She currently serves as the policy and advocacy director for the Montgomery County Office of the Public Defender in Pennsylvania.

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