An Interaction with Police Doesn’t Have to Mean Detention for Young People

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“Every interaction between police officers and our young people is, or can be, an opportunity for prevention or intervention.”  
– Betsy Hodges, mayor, Minneapolis

Decades of evidence support Mayor Hodges’ comment. Systems that overuse detention and other harsh corrections methods often make young people more likely to reoffend and in doing so, harm them, their families and their communities. The good news is that with the right services, most first-time youth offenders never have further problems with the law.

Diversion programs, which are often developed by municipal police departments, are systems that allow low-level offenders to avoid criminal charges and convictions, and are an important way cities can implement juvenile justice reform.

These programs hold youth accountable for offenses while keeping them in school and in their communities, all while providing access to services that address unmet needs such as mental health services and family support. Access to these services can be the key for young people to make positive and lasting changes.

Leadership academy in action
Captain Tanya Washington of the Little Rock Police Department (left) and Shirley Torres of Homeboy Industries work on action plans for juvenile justice reforms in their cities.

Over two days at NLC’s recent Municipal Leadership for Juvenile Justice Reform Leadership Academy in Minneapolis, 38 motivated and passionate city leaders, police and probation officers and service providers met to discuss ways their jurisdiction could identify and implement alternatives to traditional detention. Led by national juvenile justice reform experts, teams from cities as diverse as Farmington Hills, Michigan and Los Angeles met to learn and exchange ideas about how diversion programs could work in their jurisdictions.

Key lessons that emerged from the leadership academy include:

  • The most effective diversion programs offer as many “off ramps” as possible to help youth avoid continued involvement with the juvenile justice system;
  • Status offenses, acts such as truancy or curfew violations that are only considered offenses when committed by minors, can often signal unmet individual and family needs. Community partners are critical in helping law enforcement direct youth to appropriate resources;
  • To improve public safety and provide effective rehabilitation, the juvenile justice system must work to align with the latest research on youth development and mental health;
  • Reform efforts must address racial and ethnic disparities at every point in a young person’s contact with the justice system.

Leadership academy attendee citiesThe meeting also featured a tour of Minneapolis’s Juvenile Supervision Center (JSC). The JSC, located in city hall, provides a safe place for police to bring youth picked up for truancy, curfew violation or other low-level offenses. The JSC provides an exemplary model of collaboration between city, county and school department stakeholders. Of the over 2,000 youth seen annually at the JSC, less than 10 percent re-enter the center while their case is active. The center has also helped reduce the time police officers need to process cases from several hours to five minutes.

Finally, participants planned next steps to implement in their communities, including:

  • Developing champions at multiple local agencies and organizations to encourage the use of productive data sharing;
  • Completing an analysis of demographic data to get a clear picture of racial and ethnic disparities;
  • Creating a civil citation program to avoid detaining offenders who are not a risk to the public or to themselves.

Heidi Cooper
About the Author:
Heidi Cooper is the Justice Reform Associate in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.