Juvenile diversion programs offer a better alternative to incarceration while building stronger communities and better citizens.
America’s criminal justice system serves several purposes. It is used to punish criminals, to protect innocent people from becoming victims by removing dangerous criminals from the streets, and also can give some comfort to victims. But the justice system should also serve another purpose; it should reform criminals, and reduce the chance that they commit future crimes.
In the way that it attempts to reach these goals, the American justice system is often flawed. With the highest incarceration rate in the world, United States courts are overburdened while jails and prisons are overcrowded. This results in massive costs to U.S. taxpayers. In 2016 the Department of Justice proposed a spending budget of $31.8 billion, with the Bureau of Prisons accounting for about 22 percent of the cost. As the United States tries to remedy the deep-rooted issues in the criminal justice system policymakers are looking for ways to deal with the problem.
Increasingly, states are looking to so-called Diversion Programs as a possible solution. Diversion Programs were created with the intent to keep low-level, nonviolent offenders out of the justice system, with a particular emphasis on young offenders. The focus on youth diversions draws on two theories. The first is known as the “Labelling Theory.” Developed in the 1960s by American Sociologist Howard Becker, it emphasizes the stigma and negative consequences that being labeled a “delinquent” can have on someone at a young age. That is, youths will accept and grow into the label, regardless of whether they were actually a “delinquent” before. The other theory, Differential Association, was developed by Edwin Sutherland and proposed the idea that individuals learn certain values, including criminal tendencies through interaction with others. Thus, sticking harmless criminals in jail could potentially cause them to become dangerous. Juvenile Diversion Programs were created, as the National Institute of Justice defines it, “As an intervention strategy that redirects youths away from formal processing in the juvenile justice system while still holding them accountable for their actions.”
In order for offenders to participate in Juvenile Diversion Programs, they typically must agree to certain terms in return for avoiding formal court processes. Youth volunteers may face several different types of required diversion intervention including being placed in juvenile summer programs aimed to foster positive traits and a sense of belonging outside of gangs or criminal groups. Other intervention may include community service, restorative justice programs (where victims can speak to their offenders in moderated meetings), and treatment or skills building programs (including cognitive-behavioral therapy or employment training).
By keeping juveniles out of jail these programs attempt to avoid the potential trauma and bad influences that they might face in jail, while also permitting low-level, nonviolent offenders to address their behavior properly. Furthermore, the programs reduce prison overcrowding and save courts time, also saving money by avoiding the costs of court processes and secure placement.
Multiple studies indicate the cost and time effectiveness of Diversion Programs. Costs are further saved by reducing time offenders spend in custody. Several studies also indicate a clear decrease in the rate of juvenile recidivism, including a 2013 study done by Wilson and Hoge which declared a 25 percent decrease in recidivism rates.
Diversion Programs are, however, still experimental. And though they exist in 43 states there is no nationwide standard for the programs. The proposed budget for the Department of Justice in 2016 allocated 10 percent of its almost 32 billion dollar budget for The Office of Justice Programs. These programs are not appropriate in many cases and can only do so much to reduce prison populations. Furthermore, the eventual expunging of the offender’s record, at the completion of the program, for some is argued to be too lenient.
New Jersey has two types of Juvenile Diversion Programs authorized by the State Attorney General. The first is called a Curbside Adjustment, where an officer may offer an informal “talking to” and then release the young person without taking them to the station. The second type, Stationhouse Adjustments, are a more formal type of Diversion Programs. In this case, after being brought in to the station a youth may agree to satisfy a set of conditions, such as participating in community service, and in return for no juvenile delinquency complaint being filed. Montclair’s Deputy Police Chief Wilhelm ‘Wil’ Young, a Montclair resident and a 24-year member of the Montclair Police Department is supportive of the two programs authorized by the State Attorney General. Reached by phone Deputy Young said,
“Both of these options are critically valuable to the Police Department. In this age of Community Policing, both the Curbside Adjustment and Station House Adjustment give us the latitude to council and even mentor, if you will, our young people without thrusting them into the Criminal Justice System. It’s vitally important for us to communicate with our community at all levels and this not only empowers our Juvenile Aid Bureau Detectives and School Resource Officers, it also empowers each and every patrolman to have the latitude to speak to a youngster, giving that guidance and direction that does not have that judicial feel to it. I believe that often goes a long way in a young mind and they see the woman or man behind the uniform and not just the uniform. We were all young men and women before we put the uniform on and we get it. Working together with the families in this way is a positive for everyone.”
The question remains: what is the ultimate goal of the American criminal justice system? Is it punishment? If it is reform, at what cost? America must decide how much money it is willing to spend on prisons and how much money it is willing to spend to keep people out of prison.