Diverting Los Angeles Youth from the Criminal Justice System

Over the last half a century, the United States prison population has grown exponentially – the U.S. currently incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation in the world. Approximately one in three Americans has a criminal arrest record, and young men are disproportionately impacted. There are also pronounced differences across race. A 2014 study of 18 to 23 year olds found that by age 23, 49% of Black males had been arrested for something other than a minor traffic violation, compared to 38% of White males.  

In light of these trends, criminal justice and policing reform policies have been gaining popularity in recent years. A 2017 American Civil Liberties Union poll found that  91% of Americans say the criminal justice system has problems that need to be addressed. 

Criminal Justice Data

One major aspect of criminal justice and police reform is open policing data. Open data – defined as data that can be freely accessed, used and re-distributed – allows communities to better define the problems they are facing and implement evidenced-based recommendations. In the criminal justice context, open data provides increased transparency about police activity, which in turn can lead to more community trust in law enforcement. 

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is part of the  Police Data Initiative, which was created in 2015 to encourage police departments across the country to make their data available to the public.  While the increased access to data is valuable, it can be difficult to pull out trends and actionable recommendations from individual arrest, stop and call for service records. The Neighborhood Data for Social Change’s new Criminal Justice Data Initiative aims to make the data easier to understand by reporting trends at the neighborhood level. 

The initiative will feature data stories that unpack some of the most important trends in criminal justice reform. This story focuses on one such reform: diverting young people away from the criminal justice system.

Arrests and Higher Education

Although youth arrests have been declining over the last two decades, by some estimates, over 1.5 million young people under the age of 18 are arrested nationwide each year. About 70% of these arrests are for non-violent or minor offenses, but having an arrest record can have long-lasting consequences for a young person. According to the Brookings Institution, 40% of community colleges, 55% of public universities and between 60 to 80% of private universities ask questions about criminal history in their admissions process. A 2013 study found that young people with an arrest record were 22% more likely to drop out of high school and 16% less likely to attend a four-year college than those without an arrest record. As college degrees continue to increase in value for younger generations, finding strategies to decrease the number of young people involved in the criminal justice system is of growing importance. 

Explore the map below to see the rate of juvenile arrests per 1000 youth ages 10 – 17 in each neighborhood in the City of Los Angeles.

Youth Arrests in Watts

In line with national trends, youth arrests have been falling over time in the City of Los Angeles. Watts, a neighborhood in South Los Angeles, has seen a reduction in juvenile arrests in recent years, falling from 46 arrests per 1000 youth in 2011 to 15 per 1000 youth in 2017. Despite this decrease over time, Watts still had a slightly higher juvenile arrest rate than the City of Los Angeles average of 12 per 1000 youth in 2017. 

Explore the graph below to see the trends in juvenile arrest rates across Watts and the City of Los Angeles.

In Watts, more than 97% of residents identify as Black or Latino as of 2017 American Community Survey estimates. Nearly 22% of people between the ages of 16 and 24 in Watts are considered opportunity youth – meaning they’re neither working nor in school – compared to a county average of 14%. It is particularly important for people in this age group to be working or in school because it is a critical time for developing ability, knowledge, skills, and character traits (also known as “human capital”) that are important for career path development later in life.

While there are high numbers of opportunity youth in Watts, the number of young people enrolled in public or private school has been increasing in recent years – from 23% in 2010 to 29% in 2017. This trend, coupled with decreasing youth arrests, are promising indicators for young people in Watts and across the county.  Multiple agencies across the city are implementing new strategies to divert young adults away from the justice system, and instead provide them with the educational, health, and vocational support that they need.

Diversion in the City of LA

One strategy utilized by both police forces and school systems is called diversion. Diversion involves redirecting young people to community organizations or other institutions for services, rather than penalizing them with a criminal record. Diversion can take many different forms and may occur before or after an arrest. Before an arrest, police can choose not to make an arrest for a minor offense, or school staff/community members can choose not to contact the police when less serious issues arise. Post-arrest diversion occurs when youth are arrested and then diverted to other programs rather than further involving them in the juvenile court and detention system. A 2017 report found that young people who participate in pre-arrest diversion programs in Los Angeles County are 2.5 times less likely to re-offend.

In the City of Los Angeles, the school district and police department both have diversion policies and programs in place for young people. In the 2014-15 school year, the LA School Police Department (LASPD) began utilizing diversion programs on students that were arrested or given citations on LAUSD campuses in order to avoid further implicating them in the justice system. This program integrates counseling sessions with the student and parents/guardians and aims to lay out an action plan for each student. If students successfully implement the recommendations given, their arrests are diverted. In the first year of operation, 66% of students given arrest diversion citations completed their program successfully, which translates to 306 diverted arrests in the 2014-15 school year. In each year since the implementation of the policy, the number of diversions has risen while the number of citations has fallen.

The Los Angeles Police Department began a similar diversion program in 2013 called the Juvenile Arrest Diversion Program (JADP). The program refers youth to community based organizations for assessment plans and case management. These plans for youth and their families can include everything from meditation to tutoring to job training. Once a young person successfully completes the program, no criminal cases are filed against him/her.

The graph below shows the number of young people who have been diverted as part of JADP each year.

A Health-Centered Approach

In addition to the work being done by the police and school district in the City of Los Angeles, the County has taken a health-centered approach to diversion and began its own program within the Department of Public Health in 2015. The program diverts people of all ages with mental health and/or substance abuse challenges away from jails where their problems could be exacerbated, and toward support programs. The Office of Diversion and Reentry collaborates with community-based agencies to pull resources together with the goal of improving systems and enhancing health outcomes for justice-involved individuals. 

While youth arrests have been falling in recent years, millions of young people across the country are still getting involved with the criminal justice system each year. Diversion programs allow youth to access the services they need rather than becoming involved in a system that impacts their education and opportunities in life for years to come.

Grace Persico

Grace Persico

Grace Persico is a Master of Public Policy student interested in education policy, social justice, and community development. She studied international relations and anthropology at UC Davis, graduating with a dual degree in 2013. Prior to beginning her master’s program, Grace worked at Oakland Unified School District organizing summer and after school programs and spent some time abroad teaching in Colombia. In her free time she enjoys traveling, reading, and re-watching every episode of Parks & Rec.


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