Helping Police, Families, and Communities Keep Kids Out of the Justice System

New York, NY—The Vera Institute of Justice today released a brief detailing strategies that can help police, families, and communities respond to misbehaving youth through services and support, rather than arrest and jail.

Many communities struggle with how to respond to young people who are “acting out”—running away, skipping school, disobeying adults, or involved in family conflicts. Too often, police are called and the only responses available to them are to either arrest the young person or ignore the problem behavior, neither of which resolves the situation. Worse, justice-system involvement can have serious negative impacts on a young person’s mental and physical health, as well as limit access to education and employment opportunities through a criminal record. A lack of diversion options takes a toll on whole communities by diminishing young people’s opportunities for success and spending limited police resources on often time-consuming and ineffective responses.

The brief, It Takes a Village: Diversion Resources for Police and Families, draws lessons from jurisdictions nationwide who are implementing new strategies for safely diverting youth away from the justice system and toward supportive services. Informed by interviews with stakeholders, it includes examples of successful programs, as well as stories from participating families, police, and school officials.

“We know now from research what common sense tells us—teenagers are different from adults, and our justice system responses should reflect that,” said Krista Larson, director of Vera’s Center on Youth Justice. “Fortunately, many communities are changing how they engage youth with difficult behavior, and paving the way for others to learn from new interventions that keep kids at home and connected to the support they need. One important element of the programs we’ve highlighted is that families can access the programs directly, avoiding justice system involvement altogether.”

The brief, which was funded by the Prospect Hill Foundation, highlights three types of programs that can safely and effectively divert youth from the justice system:

  • Drop-in resource centers are places where police officers, families, and school personnel can bring young people who are engaged in low-level misbehavior, such as truancy, or who just need a safe place to go. At the center, trained professionals such as social workers can assess the behavior and connect youth and their families to support without justice system involvement.
  • Police, schools, and families often need outside help to de-escalate a volatile situation. Crisis response servicesuse trained case workers or therapists to respond quickly to such situations, by phone or in person, to determine the best course of action—usually connecting the young person to community-based supports.
  • Modeled after similar programs for adults with mental illness, Crisis Intervention Teams for Youth (CIT-Y) are programs within police departments that train officers to better understand, identify, and react to youths’ developmental and mental health issues, in order to connect them to appropriate services.

This brief builds on Vera’s longstanding work to pilot community-based, non-criminal responses to status offenses, or behavior such as truancy that is criminal only because of age. Vera recently began working with three jurisdictions to develop such responses as part of the Status Offense System Reform Project.