The Evolution of Juvenile Justice: Rehabilitation versus Punishment

Juvenile Justice

July 28, 2023 by Anthony Riccio

The Justice Department reported in 2019, nearly 700,000 juveniles were arrested in the United States. The most common charges included:

The number of arrests for violent crimes was relatively low  – about 44,000. Juvenile arrests are also falling –  at a greater rate than adult arrests between 2010 and 2019.

While some young individuals may commit severe crimes necessitating incarceration, studies indicate a considerable portion of youth within the juvenile justice system are there for minor offenses, suffer from significant mental health disorders, and often default to out-of-home placement or probation. A rehabilitation approach to juvenile offenders has strong public support and costs less than incarceration.  Given these findings, diversion programs are valuable alternatives to formal processing in the juvenile delinquency system.

Juvenile diversion refers to any program designed to redirect a young offender away from becoming further entangled in the formal juvenile justice system. Such diversion is viewed as an alternative to arrest and/or prosecution in Juvenile Court.

Broadly, these diversion programs fall into two main categories:

Informal diversion encompasses any action that diverts a young person from the system. This could be a police officer issuing a warning to a young offender, a judge choosing to drop a case before the arraignment, or a negotiated agreement with the youth to make amends for their actions, such as penning an apology letter or doing community service.

Formal diversion, on the other hand, is usually a well-defined program with set eligibility and completion criteria.

Why Consider Diversion Programs?

Diversion programs aim to steer young offenders away from the justice system by offering programming, supervision, and support. The arguments favoring diversion programs are manifold:

  • Instead of confinement, a more fitting response to youth who have committed minor offenses is to divert them away from the system towards community-based treatments. These treatments involve the young individual’s family and offer services/support options tailored to the person’s needs. Such an approach addresses and prevents future delinquency more productively, thus reducing recidivism. Furthermore, it offers young individuals an opportunity to modify their future path and decision-making without enduring unnecessary and long-term punitive consequences.

  • Labeling young individuals as delinquents can give rise to a self-fulfilling prophecy and place them in juvenile and adult correctional institutions, potentially escalating their delinquency. Thus, formal processing through the juvenile justice system can perpetuate delinquency and do more harm than good.

  • Compared to incarceration and costly out-of-home or residential facilities, the cost of community-based services and diversion programs is significantly lower. Consequently, adopting diversion programs for adjudicated youth reduces system costs and conserves public resources for dealing with more serious crimes.

What Constitutes Diversion Programs?

Diversion programs aim to offer experiences deviating from traditional juvenile justice practices. Such decisions and activities usually take place at the earliest stages of involvement in the juvenile justice system. However, late-stage diversion initiatives can also reduce costly out-of-home placements.

While diversion programs may differ in structure and operation, their overarching goals remain the same. They primarily aim to informally address delinquent behavior within the community to prevent repeated offending. Some diversion programs provide specialized services to better accommodate youth with mental health or substance abuse issues. Common services provided for youth and their families in diversion programs encompass:

  • Screening and assessment

  • Educational and tutoring services

  • Victim awareness classes and activities

  • Service-learning programs

  • Substance use education and counseling

  • Job skills training

  • Mental health treatment

  • Crisis intervention

  • Family counseling

  • Parenting skill development

  • Supports for restoring family relationships

  • Quality recreation and organized sports programs

As per the National Center on Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, community services provided through diversion programs usually take place on school campuses, community sites, or the youth’s home.

What Are the Benefits of Diversion Programs?

Extensive documentation supports the benefits of diversion programs. The primary advantages of successful diversion programs include:

  • Decreasing early involvement in the “deep end” of the juvenile delinquency system

  • Reducing out-of-home placements, especially for younger children

  • Promoting youth engagement in the community by keeping them in their environment

  • Decreasing cost compared to court processing and/or secure placement

However, recent studies have also uncovered potential downsides of diversion programs, suggesting the need for ongoing work on their efficacy and implementation. These drawbacks may include net widening, increased recidivism due to perceived low-stakes consequences, and inequitable access to and usage of diversion programming.

Are Diversion Programs Available in Massachusetts?

Although there is no statewide juvenile justice diversion program in Massachusetts, The Cape and Islands Juvenile Diversion Program, a novel initiative of national significance, offers a judicial alternative for select first-time juvenile offenders and their families. By swiftly addressing delinquent behavior, the program benefits society and reduces the financial load on local police departments and courts.

Youths may be referred to the program by law enforcement, juvenile probation, clerk-magistrates, and schools. Participants voluntarily partake in suitable counseling/education and community service activities. In instances where property damage is involved, the juvenile may be required to make restitution. Successful completion of the program results in the District Attorney refraining from prosecuting the case, leaving the juvenile without a court record for offense.

Eligibility for the program is determined by the juvenile’s age (between 12 and 18), and the offense must have occurred within Barnstable, Dukes, or Nantucket County. The program is typically offered to first-time offenders charged with misdemeanors, such as shoplifting, minor in possession of alcohol, fake I.D, disorderly conduct, trespassing, and property damage. The decision to divert is a collective effort involving Diversion staff, the Assistant District Attorney, police, schools, and juvenile probation.

Upon agreeing to participate, the juvenile and their parents/guardians initiate the intake process with Diversion staff. This process informs the development of an individualized contract, which may include counseling, educational/youth programs, and community service. The juvenile may also be required to write an apology letter, make restitution if applicable, and write an essay reflecting on what they learned from the experience.

Taking a New Approach: Strategies for Dealing with Juvenile Delinquency Crimes

Juvenile Law

The Juvenile Justice System is continually adapting its approach towards juvenile delinquency crimes. The understanding children and adolescents are still developing and can learn from their mistakes guides these strategies. Contemporary methods are focused on therapeutic interventions and skill-building programs, addressing the root causes of delinquent behavior. By focusing on prevention, intervention, and diversion programs, the system aims to provide youths with the tools they need to make better choices and break the cycle of delinquency.

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