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Effective referral into youth diversion

Centre for Justice Innovation briefing on best youth diversion practice.

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Point of arrest youth diversion

A new briefing from the Centre for Justice Innovation looks at ensuring effective referral into youth diversion schemes. Point-of-arrest youth diversion addresses low-level criminal behaviour by children and young people without putting them through formal criminal justice processes. By avoiding outcomes such as out of court disposals or prosecution, it protects them from negative consequences such as labelling, a criminal record or interruption in their education. Youth diversion involves short assessments and quick referrals into light-touch, voluntary programming. There is strong and ever-growing evidence that youth diversion reduces reoffending, lowers costs, and leads to better outcomes for children and young people.

Critical success factors

The briefing highlights five critical success factors gained from the research before giving best practice examples.

Speedy referrals

While research shows that formal criminal justice system processing of children and young people can increase the likelihood of them committing further offences, youth diversion has been found to more effectively tackle reoffending. One reason for this may lie in the speed of the diversion referral process. Indeed, research suggests that certainty and speed in responding to offending are more important determinants of desistance than severity and that a lengthy drawn-out process may undermine the effectiveness of diversion schemes.

Labelling theory

Diversion schemes should take all reasonable steps to avoid stigmatising the children they work with, and to prevent them from forming deviant identities that may interfere with their development.  Research has demonstrated that the further a child or young person is processed by the system, the greater the likelihood of reoffending, especially for lower-risk youth, where the detrimental effect of additional system contact is possibly more influential. This is consistent with what labelling theory would suggest and, in line with the evidence on speedy referrals, points toward a policy of initiating diversion referral as early as possible once it is established that a case is appropriate.

While labelling has been found to increase with the intensity of criminal justice contact, research shows that even police stops and arrests have labelling implications. Recognising this, a number of areas are refraining from arresting children involved in low-level offending, instead taking them to a place of safety to discuss next steps and carry out the initial referral assessment. For these schemes, the diversion referral process is no longer triggered by an arrest, but by offending behaviour that reaches the threshold of arrest, and the police station is no longer the core referral site. 

Cost effectiveness

Youth diversion can reduce costs through: saving police, CPS, and court time; long-term reductions in reoffending; and better access to support services to address emerging needs earlier. An effective referral process can make a particular contribution to saving staff and agency time. Police time savings come when diversion accelerates the time frame in which police can refer low-level cases to youth offending teams and re-focus on dealing with more serious work. A quick and straightforward referral process is therefore needed to leverage the cost avoidance potential of diversion.

 

Procedural fairness

Research has shown that when people perceive the procedures of the justice system to be fair, they are more likely to obey the law in the future — regardless of the outcome of their case. Procedural fairness can be improved by prioritising treating people with dignity and respect, ensuring that they understand the process, that they have a voice, and that decisions are made neutrally. An effective youth diversion referral process will incorporate these elements of procedural fairness which might involve, for example, addressing police use of extended release under investigation. CJI research on youth courts flagged this as a cause of delay and as potentially disruptive to the rehabilitative process, undermining the goals of trust and respectful treatment. Furthermore, practitioners reported that children and young people subject to release under investigation rarely understood the implications of it. Procedural fairness in the referral process should also be secured for victims, with a quick referral indicates to victims that their case is being taken seriously.

Checks on discretion

Diversion is often referred to in the research literature as a ‘loosely coupled’ decision-making point in the youth justice system, i.e. one relatively unconstrained by official rights and legal criteria. This means diversion necessarily entails a degree of professional discretion, which, in itself, can present a challenge to the principles of procedural fairness. While discretion can help ensure flexibility, allowing diversion referrals to be made in all cases where it is suitable, discretion can also make the operation of youth diversion arbitrary, rather than principled, running counter to the ideals of justice and risking compliance with the system as a whole.
Checks and balances are therefore needed to ensure that referral decisions are robust and that discretion is not improperly used. Joint decision-making panels, drawing on the expertise of police and youth offending teams as well as other specialists from, for example, education and health, are increasingly used as a guard against autonomous frontline police discretion in referrals.

Conclusion

The CJI briefing concludes that the research around diversion points to the need for a speedy, straightforward referral process to better tackle recidivism, avoid the negative effects of labelling, and achieve administrative efficiency. The referral process should also be procedurally fair and include checks and balances on discretion.

Although diversion practice continues to improve, in many areas the process is much too slow, undermining some of the positive impacts of the approach.

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