Key Issues

+ What are Community-Based Alternatives?

The phrase “community-based alternatives” refers to a wide range of approaches designed to limit youth contact with the juvenile justice system and the frequency with which they are incarcerated. Traditionally, community-based alternatives have referred primarily to programmatic alternatives to securely confining youth in jail-like juvenile justice facilities. Alternatives have included options such as probation, restorative community programs, evidence-based treatment programs such as Functional Family Therapy and Multi-Dimensional Treatment Foster Care, and many more approaches and programs.[1]

Many practitioners also classify practice reforms used at many points along the juvenile justice continuum as community-based alternatives, from implementing early intervention programs that keep youth from contact with the justice system (such as peer/teen jury programs) to diverting or redirecting youth out of the justice system (such as through restorative justice programs), or diverting youth from secure detention in juvenile justice facilities prior to adjudication or trial (the focus of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative).

The primary goals of community-based alternatives are to hold youth accountable for their behavior (many also build competency in youth and families) while reducing the negative outcomes experienced by youth who enter the system or who are confined.

+ Why We Need Alternatives to Formal Juvenile Justice System Processing and Incarceration

What’s Best for Kids?

    • Adolescent Development
        • Recent research has shown that the human brain continues to develop throughout childhood and adolescence, and may not be fully mature until the mid-20s. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, which regulates “executive” functioning skills, such as decision-making, planning, judgment, expression of emotions, and impulse control, is one of the last to develop.[2]
        • Due to these and other developmental changes occurring during childhood and adolescence, youth have greater difficulty controlling their emotions and impulses—particularly during times of “hot cognition” or moments of high emotion—are more sensitive to peer pressure and immediate rewards, and more prone to risky behavior.[3]
        • For healthy psychological development, youth need the following:
            • involvement of a parent or parent figure who is concerned about their successful development
            • relationships with peers who have adopted positive social and academic behavior
            • opportunities (such as good educational programs, extracurricular activities, and work) that allow them to develop “autonomous decision-making and critical thinking” skills.[4]
        • Incarcerating youth removes them from their homes and communities, interfering with their ability to obtain the relationships and experiences they need for healthy development. Youth have the greatest capacity for change when provided with appropriate interventions that meet their developmental needs.[5]
    • Harm to Youth from Incarceration and Formal Juvenile Justice System Processing
        • Youth who are incarcerated in juvenile secure facilities are at risk of:
            • physical, emotional, and sexual victimization
            • suicide
            • disruptions to their mental and physical development
            • disruptions to their education
            • negative impacts on employment and future economic success[6]
        • A recent report found that more than half of all youth reported experience with theft or violence while in placement, with younger youth at greatest risk of violence, while 1 in 10 youth in state-owned or operated facilities reported sexual victimization.[7]
        • Incarceration has been found to increase the rate of antisocial activity and raise the level of offending for some youth.[8]
        • A recent study found that juvenile incarceration results in large decreases in the likelihood of high school completion and large increases in the likelihood of adult incarceration.[9]
        • Even youth who are not incarcerated can be harmed by going through the formal juvenile justice process and having a delinquency record. They can suffer the collateral consequences of challenges to re-enrolling in school, difficulty being accepted by colleges, barriers to employment, rejection from non-delinquent peers, and evictions from their homes.[10]

How Do We Keep the Community Safe?

    • Rather than providing a public safety benefit, formal system processing often has “a negative or backfire effect” resulting in youth subsequently committing more offenses, especially when compared to youth provided with diversion with services.[11]
    • State juvenile recidivism rates remain high for youth released from correctional custody. Approximately 75 percent of youth are rearrested within three years and 45-72 percent are convicted of a new offense.[12]
    • Numerous evidence-based community-based programs have been found to reduce reoffending, such as Treatment Foster Care[13] and Functional Family Therapy.[14]
    • Even for youth who have committed serious offenses, studies have reported lower recidivism rates for programs providing alternatives to confinement than for incarceration.[15]
    • For youth returning from incarceration, community-based alternatives have also been found to be an effective component of after-care. Studies found that youth receiving community-based services following release from an institution were more likely to avoid further juvenile justice system involvement.[16]

What is Most Cost-Effective?

    • As of 2014, the average cost to incarcerate a single youth was $149,000 per year, with some states reporting costs higher than $250,000 per year.[17] Effective community-based programs are generally much more cost-effective.
    • The Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP), a leading source of information on cost-benefit analyses and evaluations of juvenile justice programs, has published numerous reports identifying alternative programs over the past two decades that have positive cost-savings for Washington taxpayers as well as those that do not. Click here for cost-benefit information on the community-based programs they have recently evaluated.[18]
    • Below is a sampling of cost-savings that have been achieved by states implementing evidence- and community-based juvenile justice programs:
        • Florida’s Redirection Program, which redirects youth from residential placements to evidence-based treatment options, has saved the state $36.4 million over four years and avoids $5.2 million in recommitment and prison costs. The program has also lowered recidivism rates for youth.[19]
        • Between 2005 and 2010, Redeploy Illinois, a program offering counties financial incentives to use community-based alternatives instead of state incarceration, reduced youth commitments to Illinois prisons by 51 percent (from 1,737 youth to 854). During that period, the 28 participating counties kept 883 youth away from state prisons, saving the state an estimated $40 million.[20]
        • Since Texas started its “Commitment Reduction Program,” where counties propose plans to reduce state commitments and receive grant money to fund community-based programs, the state has saved more than $200 million dollars and commitments have dropped.[21]
        • Georgia’s legislature passed House Bill 242, which led to a decrease in juvenile detention populations and closure of three state facilities. $30 million of the savings from HB 242 was reinvested into community programs and implementation of evidence-based programs. “In 2016, 1,723 juveniles underwent evidence-based interventions supported through the new grants, with nearly two-thirds successfully completing their programs.”

+ Who is Eligible for Community-Based Alternatives?

Community-based alternatives have been successfully used with a wide variety of youth. Each program has different eligibility standards; these often depend on which stage of the justice system the program addresses.

    • Early intervention programs are often geared to kids who have been acting out in the school or the community — sometimes due to mental health issues or substance use disorders as well as other issues such as learning deficits, trauma, poor parental management, or delayed development — and/or kids that are in schools or communities where minor discipline problems have become routinely handled by the justice system.
    • For youth facing secure detention prior to adjudication, eligibility is often determined through use of a risk assessment instrument, which screens youth to determine who can be safely supervised in the community pending trial. The factors considered generally include the seriousness of the offense, a youth’s family relationships and ties to the community, stability in work or school, and any previous record of failure to appear in court.[23]
    • Alternatives to justice system processing are available to a wide variety of youth and for all levels of offenses. However, they have been most commonly used with youth charged with minor and often non-violent offenses, first offenses, and/or status offenses, as well as youth on probation and youth with special needs, such as mental health or substance use disorders.
    • Alternatives to secure confinement following adjudication are available for many youth charged with a wide variety of offenses. Risk assessment tools are now being used more often to determine the type of placement for youth. These tools can help to guide intervention planning by tailoring case planning to focus services and programming on factors tied most closely to reoffending.

+ Are there Conditions and Responsibilities Youth Participating in these Programs Must Meet?

Requirements vary widely, depending on the program and the stage of the justice system a given program addresses.

    • Early Intervention – programs such as teen courts may require that youth admit their infraction in order to participate. Youth will be required to complete the sanctions they are given, such as writing letters of apology and performing community service, and they may be required to take a turn serving on the teen court jury.[24]
    • Alternatives to Secure Detention Prior to Adjudication – youth are generally required to stay out of trouble, attend school or work, and not have unauthorized contact with the victim. Other requirements may also be mandated, such as curfews.[25]
    • Alternatives to Formal Justice System Processing and to Secure Confinement Following Adjudication– requirements for participants vary a great deal. Commonly, youth are required to participate in the program for a specified length of time, attend appointments with their probation officer, participate in screening and assessment, participate in any community service prescribed by the program, attend school, and pay restitution. Other requirements for programs that divert youth from justice system processing may include admitting the alleged offense, undergoing drug testing, and not having any new arrests.[26]

+ How are Community-Based Alternatives Funded?

Local jurisdictions have funded community-based alternatives in a number of ways. These mechanisms include: state funds in the form of a line item in the budget or grants; Medicaid funding for some behavioral health services; Workforce Investment Act dollars; grants from non-profit foundations that invest in juvenile justice; local governmental tax collection initiatives; and money saved from closing down juvenile facilities.

States interested in systemic change to realign their juvenile justice systems to focus more heavily on community-based alternatives have developed a number of broad initiatives to accomplish this, such as creating fiscal incentives for localities to keep youth out of state facilities and treat them in the community, or downsizing their secure facilities to redirect funding to community-based alternatives.

+ Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Diversion? The Danger of “Widening the Net”

It is critical to ensure that the programs used do not “widen the net,” or keep youth in the justice system just to receive treatment. Diversion programs should only be used for youth who would otherwise be formally processed within the juvenile justice system. Otherwise, we may be subjecting youth to the negative impacts of formal justice system processing unnecessarily.[27]

    • The negative consequences of net-widening include:[28]
        • A program is not really an “alternative” if it serves youth who would not otherwise have been detained.
        • By wasting resources on youth that would not have been detained, there are less community alternatives available to serve the youth who need them, causing more reliance on secure detention.[29]
        • Net-widening generally impacts youth of color disproportionately.
        • Using alternatives for those youth who don’t need them pulls them deeper into the system than necessary.
        • If low-risk youth are routinely placed in community alternative programs, moderate-risk youth may seem inappropriate for these programs, and be unnecessarily placed in secure detention.
    • Ways to avoid net-widening include:
        • In designing the program, the following is recommended:[30]
            • Rely on a variety of specific data sources to determine the contributors to detention;
            • Use data in determining where program interventions will have maximum impact;
            • Determine appropriate criteria and the desired impact for the point in the court process that you wish to impact;
            • Clearly identify the target population; and
            • Create a continuum of sanctions and responses to program infractions.
        • Additional ideas for avoiding net-widening include:
            • Diversion intake officers should not overlook whether there is legal sufficiency for a charge before focusing on the perceived needs of the child and family.[31]
            • Adopt a deep-end strategy that targets resources on youth with the most severe issues instead of first-time offenders.[32]


[1] See the OJJDP Model Program Guide for a database of over 200 programs at “OJJDP Model Program Guide,” U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), accessed June 11, 2013,

[2] National Juvenile Justice Network, “Using Adolescent Brain Research to Inform Policy: A Guide for Juvenile Justice Advocates,” (Washington, DC: September 2012), 1,

[3] National Juvenile Justice Network, “Using Adolescent Brain Research,”2.

[4] National Research Council, “Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach: Report Brief,” (Committee on Law and Justice, November 2012), 2, accessed at

[5] National Research Council, “Reforming Juvenile Justice,” 3.

[6] National Juvenile Justice Network, “The Real Costs and Benefits of Change” (Washington, DC: 2010), available at; Justice Policy Institute, “The Costs of Confinement: Why Good Juvenile Justice Policies Make Good Fiscal Sense” (Washington, DC: 2009), available at; Barry Holman and Jason Zeidenberg, “The Dangers of Detention: The Impact of Incarcerating Youth in Detention and Other Secure Facilities,” (Washington, DC: Justice Policy Institute, 2006).

[7] Melissa Sickmund and Charles Puzzanchera, eds., Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2014 National Report (Pittsburgh, PA: National Center for Juvenile Justice, 2014): 215-17

[8] National Juvenile Justice Network, “Emerging Findings and Policy Implications from the Pathways to Desistance Study” (Washington, DC: 2012). Available at; T. Loughran, et al., “Estimating a Dose-Response Relationship Between Length of Stay and Future Recidivism in Serious Juvenile Offenders,” Criminology, 47 (2009).

[9] Anna Aizer & Joseph J. Doyle, Jr., “Juvenile Incarceration, Human Capital and Future Crime: Evidence from Randomly- Assigned Judges,” National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper No. 19102 (June 2013), at; Brad Plumer, “Throwing Children in Prison Turns Out to be a Really Bad Idea,” Washington Post WONKBLOG (June 15, 2013), at

[10] Ashley Nellis, “Addressing the Collateral Consequences of Convictions for Young Offenders,” The Champion (July/August 2011),

[11] Anthony Petrosino, Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino, and Sarah Guckenburg, “Formal System Processing of Juveniles: Effects on Delinquency,” Campbell Systematic Reviews (January 29, 2010), 38. Available at One finding in this report required further study: three studies with participants who had committed first-time offenses reported positive results for system processing. Also see National Juvenile Justice Network, “Emerging Findings and Policy Implications from the Pathways to Desistance Study,” (Washington, DC: 2012).

[12] Richard A. Mendel, “No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration” (Baltimore: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2011), 10. Available at: Also see Richard A. Mendel, “Less Cost, More Safety: Guiding Lights for Reform in Juvenile Justice,” (Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum, 2001) which states that studies of youth sent to large juvenile correctional institutions in the past 30 years have found a 50-70 percent recidivism rate within one to two years of release; James Austin, Kelly Dedel Johnson, and Ronald Weitzer, “Alternatives to the Secure Detention and Confinement of Juvenile Offenders” (Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, September 2005), 2-3.

[13] Met the criteria for a “Top Tier Standard” by the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy for girls due to 50 percent reductions in criminal referrals. Available here; Steve Aos, et. al., “Benefits and Costs of Prevention and Early Intervention Programs for Youth, Technical Appendix” (Olympia, WA: Washington State Institute for Public Policy, September 17, 2004), which notes MDFT’s positive effect on crime reduction; Stephanie Lee, et. al., “Return on investment: Evidence-based options to improve statewide outcomes” (Olympia, WA: Washington State Institute for Public Policy, April 2012), which notes MDFT’s positive effect on crime reduction.

[14] Aos, et al., “Benefits and Costs,” which finds FFT has a positive effect on crime reduction, as does Aos, et al., “Return on Investment”; James Austin, et al., “Alternatives to the Secure Detention and Confinement of Juvenile Offenders,” 3, which notes that studies done from the 1960s to the mid-1990s have found community-based programs were more effective at reducing recidivism and improving community adjustment than traditional juvenile justice programs.

[15] Joel Copperman, Sarah Bryer, and Hannah Gray, “Community-Based Sentencing Demonstrates Low Recidivism among Felony-Level Offenders,” Offender Programs Report 8:2 (2004), 29, available at; Mendel, “No Place for Kids,” 11-12.

[16] Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), “Highlights from Pathways to Desistance: A Longitudinal Study of Serious Adolescent Offenders,” 3, (March 2011).

[17] Vera Institute, “Just Kids: When Misbehaving is a Crime,” (New York, NY: 2017), citing Justice Policy Institute, “Sticker Shock: Calculating the Full Price Tag for Youth Incarceration“, December 2014.

[18] Washington State Institute for Public Policy, “Updated Inventory of Evidence-Based, Research-Based, and Promising Practices” (Olympia, WA: January 31, 2013), See also, Washington State Institute for Public Policy, “Return on Investment: Evidence-Based Options to Improve Statewide Outcomes,” 2 (April 2012)

[19] National Juvenile Justice Network, “The Real Costs and Benefits of Change: Finding Opportunities for Reform during Difficult Fiscal Times,” (Washington, DC: June 2010), available at, citing Florida Legislature, “Redirection Saves $36.4 Million and Avoids $5.2 Million in Recommitment and Prison Costs” (Tallahassee: Office of Program and Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, May 2009, Report 09-27), 2, available at

[20] State of Illinois, “Redeploy Illinois: Annual Report to the Governor and the General Assembly; Calendar Years 2010-2011” (Springfield, IL: Department of Human Services, 2011), 15. Available at

[21] Douglas N. Evans, “Pioneers of Youth Justice Reform: Achieving System Change Using Resolution, Reinvestment, and Realignment Strategies” (New York, NY: Research and Evaluation Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, July 2012), 38-40,

[22] Anne Teigen, “Principles of Effective Juvenile Justice Policy,” (Denver, CO: The National Conference of State Legislatures, 2018).

[23] David Steinhart, “Juvenile Detention Risk Assessment: A Practical Guide to Juvenile Detention Reform,” (Baltimore: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2006); Central and Eastern Oregon Juvenile Justice Consortium, “A Risk Assessment Guide for Pre-Adjudicatory Detention Decisions and Community Custody Alternatives” (Bend, OR: January 2011),

[24]How Does Youth Court Work?,” Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; “Teen Court,” Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Citizen’s Information Center, accessed May 23, 2013.

[25] Central and Eastern Oregon Juvenile Justice Consortium (CEOJJC), “A Risk Assessment Guide for Pre-Adjudicatory Detention Decisions and Community Custody Alternatives,” (January 2011).

[26] Models for Change Juvenile Diversion Workgroup, “Juvenile Diversion Guidebook” (Chicago, IL: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, March 2011), 41-42,

[27] Models for Change, “Guide to Developing Pre-Adjudication Diversion Policy and Practice in Pennsylvania” (Chicago, IL: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, September 2010), 8, at

[28]The Negatives of Net-Widening,” JDAI Connect accessed October 22, 2018.

[29] An example of this is San Francisco’s attempt to reform its juvenile justice system by using more community alternatives beginning in 1996. This led to a wider pool of lower risk youth being absorbed into the system and a much higher percentage of youth being securely detained. Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, “Widening the Net in Juvenile Justice and the Dangers of Prevention and Early Intervention” (August 2001), 1-3, at

[30] Judy Cox, Scott Macdonald, Mike Rohan, and Tim Roche, “When Alternatives Fail – Avoiding the Unintended Consequences; the Do’s and Don’t’s” (JDAI Presentation, Indianapolis 2008).

[31] Tamar R. Birckhead, “Closing the Widening Net: The Rights of Juveniles at Intake” Texas Tech Law Review 46 (June 12, 2013), 18, at

[32] Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, “Widening the Net in Juvenile Justice and the Dangers of Prevention and Early Intervention” (August 2001), 4-6, at