Massachusetts taxpayers spend roughly $50 million each year to confine youth for low-level offenses. Unlike most states, Massachusetts does not currently provide funding for or require juvenile diversion of any kind. Instead, police, district attorneys, and court personnel offer programs and practices at their own discretion, and are not required to follow best practices or to track what they do. This means that children across the Commonwealth receive starkly different opportunities to avoid court involvement depending on where they live, and we have little ability to assess whether such programs are offered fairly or are effective.
The vast majority of cases that end up in the Juvenile Court today involve low-level offenses. Young people most frequently end up in the system for things like disorderly conduct, theft, or minor fights, which can be addressed through restitution or restorative approaches. Few young people charged in Juvenile Court are ever found delinquent, let alone “committed” to the Department of Youth Services, or DYS. (See more from Massachusetts JDAI here.) However, too many youth are detained despite posing almost no safety risk at all. Once system-involved, these young people often end up detained for technical violations of their probation (such as breaking curfew) or to ensure they will appear at future court hearings. Serious or chronic offenders who are eligible to be indicted as “youthful offenders”* are exceptionally rare: in FY2015 these cases made up only 2% of youth arraigned in Juvenile Court.
*A “youthful offender” is a child between the ages of 14 - 18 who is subject to an adult or juvenile sentence because of a weapons charge, threatening to cause “serious bodily injury,” or being previously committed to DYS (M.G.L. ch. 119 §52)
Court processing also increases the risk of further delinquency when compared to diversion from formal processing. A comprehensive systemic meta-analysis found that:
[There is] no evidence that formally moving juveniles through the juvenile justice system has a crime control effect. In fact, all analyses showed an average main effect that was negative: i.e., processing increased delinquency.
(Read more in Anthony Petrosino, Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino, and Sarah Guckenburg's Crime Prevention Research Review: Formal System Processing of Juveniles: Effects on Delinquency (2013).)
Diversion programs produce less crime and better outcomes for less money. Pre-arraignment juvenile diversion allows youths to avoid formal processing in the court system and instead focus on rehabilitation. Effective diversion programs can hold youth accountable and direct them to services, treatment, and opportunities for community involvement while avoiding the creation of a court (or arrest) record. Diversion programs are less costly than formal system processing and the benefits for individuals and communities are significant. Researchers conducting cost-benefit analyses of six leading diversion program models found that every $1 spent on diversion produced benefits of $10.60 - $25.60 for the community. (More information available in the National Research Council's Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach (2013).)