Alternatives to Arrest for Young People

The Issue and the Opportunity

A young person's involvement in the juvenile justice system often begins with an encounter with law enforcement and his or her arrest as a result of that encounter. Many youth who are arrested for low-level offenses such as skipping school, running away from home or alcohol use are inappropriately referred to the juvenile justice system.

A compelling body of evidence now shows that many young people, particularly those charged with low-level offenses, achieve better life outcomes and are less likely to commit future crimes when kept out of juvenile court and detention facilities.

Police officers have multiple opportunities to divert youth away from arrest. Mayors and other city leaders can play an important role in helping their communities seize these opportunities on a regular and consistent basis. They can develop and promote a local public safety agenda that emphasizes fair decision-making by police and focuses law enforcement's attention specifically on youth who pose a public safety risk. In conjunction, they can leverage available community-based services to support positive youth development for all young people, including those who come into contact with law enforcement.

By taking these steps, municipal leaders open the door for policies and objective, evidence-based protocols that their police departments will use to determine which youth should be arrested and/or detained and which youth can develop more successfully with locally controlled, community-based interventions.

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The cities highlighted in this brief are using clear, objective protocols that direct police officers to make evidence-based, developmentally-appropriate decisions in their interactions with youth. In many situations in which youth have engaged in less serious kinds of misbehavior (e.g., skipping school, violating curfews, or minor shoplifting incidents), this approach avoids the more punitive and often counterproductive responses traditionally employed by law enforcement.

Through the increased use of promising alternatives to arrest and prosecution, a growing number of cities have documented early progress and significant benefits, including:

  • Fewer arrests of low-risk youth;

  • Improved police-youth relations; and,

  • More efficient use of officers' time.