Pre-Arrest Diversion for Juveniles – A Model Program

Pre-arrest diversion, known in some jurisdictions as deflection or civil citation, is a structured approach to provide an alternative to an arrest for a youth who commits an offense and thus comes into contact with the juvenile justice system. This effective early intervention approach at the earliest stage of delinquency aims to prevent further delinquency while assuring the youth’s behavior is appropriately addressed without creating a formal arrest record.[i]

Juvenile pre-arrest diversion programs shift practices from an arrest model to early intervention and diversion. These programs across the country have documented better outcomes compared to traditional criminal justice processing which have contributed to an overall reduction in the juvenile crime rate.

Advantages of Civil Citation/Pre-Arrest Diversion[ii]:

  • Enhances Public Safety
  • Avoids Costs
  • Services Based on Needs Assessment
  • Better Use of Resources
  • Reduces Disproportionate Representation
  • Addresses Zero Tolerance Policies
  • No Criminal Record

Effective juvenile pre-arrest diversion programs have five key components: building community support through partnerships, addressing and protecting public safety, ensuring equality of justice, providing access to needed services and data collection and evaluation to validate positive outcomes. A model program has all five of these variables embedded in the program design.

Partnerships and Community Collaboration

Model juvenile pre-arrest diversion programs have a strong link between the local juvenile justice authority, the prosecutor, and youth serving agencies in the community.[iii] Whether the juvenile authority is a state agency or local/regional juvenile authority, a pre-arrest diversion program for juvenile offenders is successful when the entire community embraces and supports the model.

It is critical that all segments of the community have an opportunity to contribute to program design and are informed about program progress. The first step involves building support and collaboration among key stakeholders including:

  • Social services agencies – Community substance use disorder treatment agencies, mental health providers, child welfare agencies and others
  • Local justice agencies – Law enforcement, state attorney, public defender and the juvenile court
  • Local elected officials – City and county leaders
  • School system – Administrators and school principals
  • Community groups – NAACP, Urban League, faith leaders, NAMI, and others

Often the juvenile justice authority takes the lead in program structure and design; however, it is typically the community partners that implement the juvenile pre-arrest diversion program with particular attention and focus to community needs. An effective strategy is to establish a local Juvenile Advisory Council to guide the development and implementation of the program, the change management processes, policy implementation and program oversight. Advisory Council members should include:

  • Law enforcement
  • Prosecutor/State Attorney
  • School leaders
  • Community leaders
  • Advocates
  • Concerned citizens including faith-based and the business community
  • Family members of youth involved in juvenile system
  • Youth voice

The core concepts of implementation of a juvenile pre-arrest diversion program include:

  • Implementing a structured program following guidance of juvenile authority
  • Designating a lead agency to operate the juvenile pre-arrest diversion program; ideally a behavioral health or youth services agency that can ensure appropriate service delivery
  • Creating a partnership with school systems to coordinate with structured interventions as needed
  • Developing and implementing a strategy to inform the public about the program
  • Establishing an intake process to address the delinquent act and referral to the right services
  • Developing interventions to address risk and protective factors
  • Implementing policies and expectations related to community service obligations by the youth, victim restitution, or restorative justice intervention (such as an apology letter)
  • Engaging parents or guardians of the youth to support and engage in the intervention
  • Establishing that those who successfully complete the program will not have an arrest record

Addressing Public Safety

The primary goal of a juvenile pre-arrest diversion is to modify the behavior of the young person who committed a delinquent act utilizing a structured intervention pathway. To ensure public safety, youth need to be held accountable for their behavior.[iv] Program components such as community service, restitution and restorative justice practices provide that accountability.

A model juvenile justice pre-arrest diversion program engages the state attorney, juvenile justice authority and local law enforcement into a collaboration that designs the justice intervention, eligibility criteria and number of diversions allowed. The success of a pre-arrest diversion program is dependent on utilization by local law enforcement officers and the ease of referral, such as the utilization of a juvenile assessment center or intake center. In a model program, representatives from the local justice agencies work together to determine program design, eligibility criteria, appropriate sanctions, how access to services will be made available and how data will be collected. Model programs do the following:

  • Establish local eligibility criteria that list specific offenses to be eligible to participate in juvenile pre-arrest diversion. Misdemeanor, or low-level non-violent felony offenses, that are often eligible for program implementation may include, but are not limited to:

o Petit theft

o Vandalism

o Loitering or prowling

o Possession of marijuana or small amounts of other illegal substances

o Possession of alcohol by underage person

o Simple battery/assault

o Disorderly conduct

o Trespass

o Obstruction of justice

  • Set other criteria that may guide eligibility such as:

o Youth resides in jurisdiction (e.g., city, county, circuit)

o Number of citations/diversions permitted

o Youth is cooperative, admits guilt, and agrees to participate and complete the program

o Participation in the program is voluntary

o Parents or guardians agree to participate in the youth’s diversion

  • Establish that a pre-arrest diversion is not considered a formal referral to the juvenile justice agency; thus, guaranteeing no formal arrest or referral record
  • Establish that unsuccessful completion of the program by a participant will result in a referral back to the state attorney for disposition
  • Establish and implement training for law enforcement officers on the value of the program, how to use the pre-arrest or civil citation process, and understanding adolescent development and the adolescent brain[v][vi]
  • Establish Memorandums of Understanding and Agreement, including any cross jurisdiction agreements, as necessary
  • Provide for structured review of program data periodically to determine how the program is being implemented, individual officer use of the program and fairness of application

Justice Equity

Pre-arrest diversion for juveniles serves a diverse population of youth including all genders, ethnicities, religions, cultures, abilities and socio-economic backgrounds. Training and policies and procedures ensure that access to the pre-arrest diversion program and services are equitable to all participating youth throughout the targeted local jurisdiction.[vii] Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are paramount to any successful pre-arrest program. Evidence from many reviews show data indicating disparities in the juvenile justice and school systems. Pre-arrest diversion serves as an early intervention process providing the opportunity for eligible youth to avoid an arrest record if they complete community-based service plan.

A model pre-arrest diversion program should ensure that the program being established is fair and all segments of the community have equal access to participate. It is important to pay attention to the following areas when engaging youth and their families:

  • Understanding cultural differences and biases
  • Building trust
  • Recognizing and addressing stigma and language barriers
  • Ensuring that DEI best practices are embedded in eligibility criteria, policies, procedures and paperwork
  • Implementing culturally specific programming, when warranted, will enhance the youth’s experience and outcomes
  • Addressing the benefits of a pre-arrest diversion

Implementing a culturally competent and inclusive work environment is augmented by specialized training, targeted data collection and analyzing data to ensure there are no biases towards certain populations. Model strategies include:

  • Ensuring program staff are culturally and gender diverse
  • Training on DEI should be available to program staff, policy makers, community partners, law enforcement officers, stakeholders and sub-contractors.
  • Data collection, analyzation, and communication by practitioners of diverse perspectives helps address DEI concerns and surface program variables that impede youth participation from selected groups

Access to Needed Services

One of the primary goals of the juvenile pre-arrest diversion program is to prevent further delinquency. Many young people who come into contact with the juvenile justice system have service needs that must be addressed if this goal is to be achieved.[viii] A comprehensive assessment will determine challenges being faced by the youth such as substance use, mental health challenge, co-occurring disorder, trauma, failure in school, family problems, or a disability. Other challenges should be considered for assessments, such as ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) scores, social isolation, and the propensity to bully or be bullied. Often these issues are a contributing factor to the behavior and delinquency of the youth.

A model pre-arrest diversion program for juveniles provides a comprehensive needs assessment and then develops a service delivery strategy based on the results of the assessment. A variety of services should be built into the program design including:

  • Utilization of evidence-based assessment tool to determine service needs appropriate for each participating youth
  • Sessions on decision making, anger management, etc.
  • Substance use disorder treatment
  • Mental health care
  • Tutoring or other educational remediation
  • Referral and connection to other support services as needed
  • Case management

Data, Outcomes and Evaluation

An essential part of a model pre-arrest diversion program for juveniles is an on-going evaluation that not only tracks outcomes, but also ensures continuous improvement of the model.[ix] Juvenile justice systems, such as Florida, have been effective using program data to demonstrate cost avoidance, program effectiveness and a reduction of youth engaged in the juvenile justice system. A comprehensive evaluation should include both quantitative and qualitative analysis of the pre-arrest diversion program. Data to be collected and analyzed includes:

  • Participant demographics including race and gender
  • Citations issued by offense categories
  • Program completion rate by demographics and offense type
  • Subsequent referral to the juvenile justice for successful program completers
  • Subsequent referrals to the juvenile justice system for unsuccessful program completers
  • Re-arrest by race/ethnicity/gender
  • Officers utilizing the program and for what offenses
  • Services recommended and utilized by youth
  • Cost avoidance as a result of program utilization
  • Youth participant and family member feedback

Building a program evaluation design prior to the commencement of the program will ensure that the data collected will serve the needs of the community, will inform on program progress and can be used to document the cost advantages and potential savings of the program.

[i] ACLU. (2022). Pre-Arrest Diversion: The Most Effective Tool for Common Youth Misbehavior.

[ii] Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. (20--)

[iii] Jac Charlier. (2018). Deflection: A Powerful Crime Fighting Tool that Improves Community Relations. https://www.policechiefmagazin...

[iv]Lothman Lambert. (2019). Juvenile Civil Citation: An Effective Innovation in Reducing Juvenile Crime and Recidivism. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/

[v] Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

[vi]Pacer Center. (2022). The Connection between Juvenile Justice and Disabilities.

[vii] Center for Justice Innovation. (2018) Equal Diversion? Racial Disproportionality in Youth Diversion. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/

[viii] IACP. (2019). Building Healthier Communities Through Pre-Arrest Diversion. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/

[ix] Nadel, et al. (2019). An Assessment of the Effectiveness of Civil Citation as an Alternative to Arrest Among Youth Apprehended by Law Enforcement.

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