Seizing an Early Opportunity

Results from a Survey of Police Departments on Youth Diversion Practice in Massachusetts

August 2018

Large numbers of youth come in contact with the juvenile justice system every year: nationwide, police arrested over 920,000 children under the age of 18 in 2015, while Massachusetts police departments made more than 7,600 arrests in 2015. Quite frequently, a contributing factor to contact with the juvenile system is one or more unaddressed problems (such as mental health or substance abuse) in the young person’s life, which are unlikely to be treated effectively with formal juvenile adjudication. Early intervention for youth is key to reducing their risk of committing crime and keeping them on the path to success.

The police play an influential gate-keeping role in determining whether a young person officially enters the juvenile justice system, or remains in the community. There is a compelling body of evidence on the negative effects court processing has on young people, underscoring the critical opportunity of police departments to support the positive development of youth. Instead of contributing to the certain creation of a formal record and possible experience of pre-trial or post-adjudication incarceration, police can help a young person get back and stay on track to a successful future. By offering pre-arrest diversion, the police have the unique opportunity to reduce the impact of a criminal record on a young person while more efficiently spending taxpayer dollars on practices proven to improve public safety.
Research shows that arresting a young person for the first time doubles their risk of dropping out of high school, even when controlling for socioeconomic, educational and family characteristics. Court processing further increases the risk of school drop-out, and also increases the risk of further delinquency when compared to diversion from formal processing. Though the stakes of formal juvenile system involvement are demonstrably high, police departments have substantial capacity to influence the scope and terms of justice system contact. The police are uniquely situated to direct the trajectory of youth toward better outcomes through diversion, while still ensuring accountability at the community level.

This report represents the first state-wide examination of police diversion practice in Massachusetts. Despite the extensive literature regarding the benefits of diverting young people from the justice system, there is an absence of research on the efforts of Massachusetts police departments to keep youth out of court and in their communities. Reporting on the first survey of its kind in Massachusetts, this report seeks to catalyze further study to fill the gap in knowledge regarding police-level youth diversion through an exploration of the following questions: What are the contours of current police diversion practice for young people in Massachusetts? What do we know about which towns offer diversion, what they offer, and how consistently their diversion programs align with best practices in the field?

The report presents data from an online survey of 95 (of the 357) police departments in Massachusetts, and includes information about the departments that offer formal and informal diversion to young people, as well as how such youth are deemed eligible for diversion, the interventions available, stakeholder collaboration, funding, staffing, training, and data collection practices. By providing the first comprehensive analysis of youth diversion in Massachusetts, this report aims to serve as a resource for police chiefs considering the creation or expansion of diversion programming, as well as for policymakers seeking to support such work.

Key Findings

  • There is a wide range of youth diversion practices at the police level in Massachusetts, which reflects that no guidance exists from legislative or other authorities on the practice.

  • Larger towns in Massachusetts are more likely to offer formal diversion at the police level to young people.

  • Affluent towns in Massachusetts are more likely to offer police-level diversion opportunities to young people.

  • There is a wide range of variation in which youth are deemed eligible for police-level diversion within and between Massachusetts police departments.

  • In-state diversion models exist already.


The variation and discretion involved in police diversion practice reflect the current lack of policy guidance from the Massachusetts Legislature, or any other state entity. Massachusetts is well-placed to improve the policy framework under which police departments can offer youth diversion:

  • To impact racial and ethnic disparities at arrest, create or expand youth diversion opportunities in towns/cities with a high number of arrests as well as those with large populations of children of color;

  • Diversion programs should make use of an objective screening tool (MASTLE) to inform police officers in screening youth for diversion;

  • Police departments should begin collecting data to evaluate which youth are more likely to be offered diversion and which are least likely to access diversion

  • Police departments should be aware of, and avoid, the potential net-widening effects of adopting formal diversion programs — referring young people to a diversion program who would otherwise been warned and released in the absence of such a program

Additional Resources

For a PDF copy of the report, please click HERE.

For a PDF copy of the executive summary of the report, please click HERE.