25 February 2021

Spotlight on the evidence: Police-led pre-charge diversion models for young offenders

Here we introduce a new intervention on the Crime Reduction Toolkit which adds to the best-available evidence about diversion approaches to reducing crime.

Research added to the Crime Reduction Toolkit suggests that police-led pre-charge diversion models can reduce reoffending among young people. Diversion models are an alternative response to traditional court procedures for young offenders under 18 years of age with limited or no prior involvement with the criminal justice system. Diversion occurs prior to charging and involves the police imposing sanctions such as a caution, restorative caution, reprimand or final warning.

Pre-charge diversion models typically take one of three forms:

  • Diversion only;

  • Diversion to referral to services; or

  • Diversion with police-led restorative justice

Traditional diversion only police cautioning schemes include a police officer, the young person, and their parents/guardian. Victims are not involved and police officers do not routinely receive training but explain the legal and social consequences of continued antisocial/criminal behaviour. The final warning and reprimand scheme is an assessment-based approach which evaluates the seriousness of the offence and determines whether the young person receives a reprimand or final warning with referral for multi-agency assessment and/or placement in a behavioural treatment program.

Caution plus and restorative cautioning involve additional elements such as the involvement of a script to structure discussion between the young person and affected parties, and, in the case of restorative cautioning or conferencing, the presence of the victim.

A meta-analysis of 19 studies, many from the US, found that diversion models led to a modest but statistically significant 6% decrease in reoffending compared to those who received standard formal sentencing. No statistically significant difference in reoffending was found between the three types of diversion models.

This review supports existing evidence from the Crime Reduction Toolkit about the effectiveness of reducing reoffending of other diversion interventions involving restorative justice (RJ). A meta-analysis of 10 studies examining the effectiveness of Restorative Justice Conferences, which involves bringing victims and offenders together, often with other family or community members, found that offenders who participated in RJ conferences were significantly less likely to reoffend over two years than those who did not participate. Similarly, offenders who participate in victim offender mediation were found to have a 34% lower rate of reoffending than those who did not participate.

The process of diverting young people from the traditional court process is thought to reduce reoffending by minimising exposure to deviant peer groups, lessening the potential for young people to become 'labelled' as delinquents, providing a framework for forgiveness and offering practical interventions to prevent further deviant behaviour. Restorative justice approaches are perceived to work by reducing an offender's ability to justify their crimes and deny the impact that their crime has on the victim. If they perceive their treatment to be fair, the legitimacy of the process may be enhanced for the offender, potentially encouraging voluntary compliance.

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