Earlier this week (4 January 2023) Clinks published the latest article in its online evidence library that I am lucky enough to curate. The evidence library was created to develop a far-reaching and accessible evidence base covering the most common types of activity undertaken within the criminal justice system.
The latest addition has been produced by the team at the Centre for Justice Innovation and examines the evidence base for effective point-of-arrest diversion for children and young people.
Some children come into contact with the law and most are simply doing what comes naturally to them – pushing boundaries, making choices without thinking through the consequences, acting up among their peers. They may also be the victims of exploitation.
Unfortunately, the consequences of being caught, arrested and convicted can be serious. For these children this affects future education and employment opportunities, and it can have a backfire effect, making children and young people more, not less, likely to reoffend.
The evidence shows that point-of-arrest youth diversion is a better way of addressing low-level criminal behaviour. Moreover, in line with the Youth Justice Board’s ‘Child First’ strategy, point-of-arrest youth diversion is vital to the prioritisation of the child’s needs, enabling a fairer youth justice system.
Point of arrest youth diversion
International research shows that when similar groups of children – comparable in demographics, offences and offending histories – are matched, and one group is formally processed while the other is diverted, the diversion groups do better. These findings are mirrored in the UK evidence base, with one influential study concluding that that the best approach to reducing reoffending by children is a policy of “maximum diversion.”
The research suggests that point-of-arrest youth diversion works because it avoids children feeling labelled as, and internalising the identity of a “criminal” by the justice system and because it seeks to minimise and, in many cases, eliminates children’s contact with negative peer pressure.
Additionally, point-of-arrest youth diversion avoids the collateral consequences of formal processing, such as interference with education, training and employment (including school exclusion, and future labour market consequences of carrying a criminal record).
As well as delivering better outcomes for children and young people, research suggests that point-of-arrest youth diversion is likely to be more cost effective than standard system processing.
In its Valuing youth diversion toolkit, the Centre for Justice Innovation has codified the research evidence into six good practice principles which are the core content of this new Clinks Evidence Library publication:
1. Eligibility criteria
Eligibility criteria should be set as broadly as possible and young people should be given more than one shot at succeeding. In doing so, schemes should avoid net-widening, and therefore be empowered to turn down inappropriate police referrals. There are also grounds for believing that young people should be accepted onto diversion schemes where they “accept responsibility” rather than specifically having to admit to an offence prior to participation.
2. Referral into diversion
Speed of referral is important. Effective schemes ensure diversion happens as soon as possible after arrest occurs. Therefore, schemes should make referral of young people in a diversion scheme as simple and straightforward for the police as possible. Diversion should be recognised by police as a “positive outcome” in their performance management schemes so that cases where diversion activity takes place do not simply get recorded as an “undetected” crime with no further action taken.
3. Induction into the diversion programme
Schemes should assess young peoples’ strengths and needs on induction, particularly to match them with appropriate interventions. Schemes should also make their expectations of young people clear, and ensure that young people fully understand the consequences of non-compliance.
4. Case work
Where possible, schemes should separate point-of-arrest youth diversion work from statutory operations, by holding sessions physically off-site and by avoiding mixing diverted young people with those under statutory supervision. There are reasonable evidence-based grounds for believing that dedicated diversion caseworkers may be preferable to statutory caseworkers. Diversion staff should also take care with their use of language to help avoid embedding negative perceptions.
The programmes schemes offered via point-of-arrest youth diversion should be evidence-based and therapeutic, relatively light touch and informal, and proportionate to the initial offending behaviour.
6. Outcomes and monitoring
Schemes should regularly report back on youth engagement to the police and to referring officers. This underlines that the original case requires no further action, and ensures that frontline police are kept updated on the scheme’s success. It is vital that schemes guarantee that successful engagement means that young people avoid a criminal record. Protocols should ensure that their participation should not be recorded in a disclosable manner in administrative databases.