The Los Angeles County Probation Department oversees the nation’s largest juvenile justice system, but a new countywide diversion plan aims to change that.Jeremy Loudenback, “L.A. County Approves Plan to Divert Youth from Justice System,” Chronicle of Social Change, January 24, 2017; and County of Los Angeles Probation, “About Probation.”
In November 2017, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved one of the most progressive models of youth diversion in the country—one that will focus on connecting young people with community-based services that support their development.David Washburn, “LA Embarks on Sweeping Youth Diversion Plan,” California Health Report, March 8, 2018.
Some kids will be diverted prior to arrest or citation, while others will have their arrests held in abeyance and withdrawn if they complete a service plan with a community-based organization.Washburn, “Youth Diversion Plan,” 2018.
What makes this model unique is that all youth charged with status offenses, misdemeanors, and even many felonies (except violent or serious felonies) will be eligible—a group that represents approximately 80 percent of the county’s justice system.Based on data cited in Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee - Youth Diversion Subcommittee (CCJCC YDS), A Roadmap for Advancing Youth Diversion in Los Angeles County (Los Angeles: CCJCC YDS, 2017), Appendix A. For original data, see Gary Sweeten, “Who Will Graduate? Disruption of High School Education by Arrest and Court Involvement,” Justice Quarterly 23, no. 4 (2006), 462-80.
Driven by multiyear data showing that the odds of a student dropping out of high school double with a first-time arrest and nearly quadruple with a first-time court appearance, the new plan seeks to reduce youth arrests, equitably improve opportunities for young people, and increase access to community-based services.Based on data cited in CCJCC YDS, Advancing Youth Diversion, 2017, 12. For original data, see Sweeten, “Who Will Graduate?,” 2006, 462-480. The county also established an Office of Youth Diversion and Development, which will oversee a plan for the county’s 46 police agencies to divert young people away from the criminal justice system.CCJCC YDS, Advancing Youth Diversion, 2017, 28; and Washburn, “Youth Diversion Plan,” 2018. Community activists, philanthropists, and city officials are optimistic about the new model. Sheila Mitchell, who heads the county’s juvenile probation division, said, “Fundamentally and philosophically, we need to help our children do well, and help them avoid the path that takes them deep into the juvenile justice system. The beauty of this undertaking is all hands are on deck—courts, law enforcement, supervisors, and community-based organizations.”Washburn, “Youth Diversion Plan,” 2018.
Los Angeles wasn’t the only jurisdiction looking to expand diversion opportunities for young people, although it was the most progressive. A new Florida state law that went into effect in July requires every judicial circuit to implement a pre-arrest diversion program targeted at youth accused of low-level offenses.Florida Juvenile Statute § 985.12 (2018). Children who qualify would receive a civil citation in lieu of arrest, and they would participate in alternative community-based programs and therapeutic interventions after undergoing an assessment of their needs.Kathryn Varn, “Study: New Rule Should Mean More Florida Kids in Diversion Programs,” Tampa Bay Times, June 26, 2018; and Caruthers Institute, Stepping Up—Florida’s Top Juvenile Pre-Arrest Diversion Efforts (St. Petersburg, FL: Caruthers Institute, 2018). Delaware also expanded its civil citation program, which allows police to issue citations to children for offenses such as underage drinking or loitering instead of arresting them.Delaware HB 442 (2018). Though these programs are a first step toward keeping children out of detention, they don’t go as far as the Los Angeles plan, which aims to decriminalize adolescent behaviors that lead to misdemeanors and status offenses.
More diversion is good news for kids: a June systematic review by the Campbell Collaboration of 19 studies on the effects of police-initiated diversion programs found that they reduce future justice system involvement for low-risk young people when compared to traditional juvenile justice processing.David B. Wilson, Iain Brennan, and Ajima Olaghere, Police-initiated Diversion for Youth to Prevent Future Delinquent Behavior (Oslo, Norway: Campbell Collaboration, 2018).