PROMO Legal - Colorado Court Judge Gavel Flag - iStock - Baris-Ozer

Report: Diverting youth away from the justice system is working

© iStock - Baris-Ozer
Eric Galatas

Click play to listen to this article.

Audio file

(Colorado News Connection) Efforts to keep young people out of the criminal justice system are working, according to a new Sentencing Project report.

Elie Zwiebel, attorney and executive director with the Transformative Justice Project of Colorado, said the vast majority of adolescents in the justice system - disproportionately children of color and other marginalized groups - have committed low-level, non-violent offenses.

PROMO Crime - Police Light Bar Law Enforcement - Wikimedia - By Highway Patrol Images - Code 3 combination LED & rotating beacons, CC BY 2.0,

Wikimedia - Highway Patrol Images CC BY 2.0

He said programs that bring young people face to face with victims, and help them repair the harms they caused, send an important message.

"We are saying that we value keeping those young people in our neighborhoods," said Zwiebel, "because we recognize that they should have a chance to learn and grow, and to ensure that they can become pro-social beneficial members of their communities."

The report highlights a decade-long effort to increase diversion programs in Colorado. Today, half the state's court districts divert adolescents to restorative justice programs.

More than 90 percent complete the program, fewer than one in 10 commit a new offense, and 99 percent of victims reported being satisfied with the process.

Dick Mendel, senior research fellow for youth justice at The Sentencing Project and the report's author, said community-based programs also benefit taxpayers.

The average cost of locking up an adolescent is $588 a day, but it costs just $75 a day for programs with wraparound services.

"Diversion tends to be cheaper," said Mendel. "It's not a net cost, it's a net savings, even in the short term. And it's especially a net savings financially in the long term, because these young people are much less likely to come back."

The report challenges political rhetoric that only tough-on-crime policies can make communities safer.

Researchers found that being arrested in adolescence actually increases the likelihood of recidivism, and greatly reduces a child's chances for success in school and beyond.

Zwiebel said he believes it's time for a different approach.

"We have tried - as a nation, and as individual communities within our nation - to implement tough-on-crime policies for decades," said Zwiebel. "For decades we tried that, and it didn't work."