This summer, like previous summers, has seen a spike in violence across the city, state, and country. What is not so common, police say, is the prevalence of young people driving crime.
Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden’s office called the recent local melees, some of which involved hundreds of teenagers and forced businesses to close early, “disturbing.” His office said prosecutors are pushing for young people to face consequences while also using diversion programs, in some cases, to identify underlying issues that may have provoked teens to act out.
Although skeptics wonder whether diversion provides enough accountability for the most brazen offenders, researchers and youth workers say science and firsthand experience show that in many cases, diversion is a community’s best hope for their children’s rehabilitation — and law enforcement’s best chance at preventing another attack.
“We’re ... aware of the importance of providing eligible teen offenders a chance to avoid traditional court involvement, as long as they maintain the strict conditions of their diversion programs,” said James Borghesani, spokesperson for Hayden’s office. “Our first priority is public safety, and we move forward on all cases balancing that priority with a diversion approach where appropriate.”
The juvenile justice system is intended to focus on rehabilitation, not punishment. As a result, many district attorney offices across the state have diversion programs baked into their juvenile courts.
The programs are designed to prevent young people from committing another offense and getting entangled in a cycle of crime that routinely proves difficult to escape; more than half of incarcerated teenagers are rearrested within a year of release, according to the federal government.
“With these so-called more innovative, progressive approaches, people are very quick to say, ‘How do we know it works? What if it happens again?’” said Lael Chester, director of the Emerging Adult Project at the Columbia Justice Lab.
“We should be asking the question: How does it work in the formalized system? The outcomes are terrible!” she said. “The traditional way we’ve been approaching it, we’re failing the young people, and we’re failing in public safety. The evidence shows diversion is more effective.”
A study published by the International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology analyzed 73 diversion programs across the country and found the average recidivism rate for diverted youth was roughly 31 percent, compared with 41 percent for “traditionally processed youth.”
In Suffolk County, children over 11 who are arrested but not immediately prosecuted can either be informally diverted and connected to social services, or placed in the Juvenile Alternative Resolution Program, which offers a more structured path to rehabilitation. According to a University of Massachusetts Boston report presented to the district attorney’s office in 2020, 75 percent of children had no reported contact with the justice system a year after completing the intensive program.
Of the 24 teens arrested after multiple brawls erupted across the city last weekend, one-third were placed in the Suffolk district attorney’s diversion programs. Borghesani said among the two dozen youth, one previously completed informal diversion in Suffolk County, while another four were under consideration for the program. Of those four, two have been “removed from the [diversion] track” following the weekend’s arrests.
Earlier this year, Hayden also introduced a pilot diversion program for young adults 18 to 25, as a complement to the existing program focused only on kids over 12; children under 12 may not be charged with a crime in Massachusetts.
Those on the front lines of law enforcement have traditionally been most hesitant to embrace diversion; the president of Boston’s largest police union told the Globe earlier this week that he hopes all the children arrested for attacking officers will be “charged and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former Baltimore officer, said he understands the need for diversion in some cases but that “right now diversion is probably being overused.”
“It’s the idea that people are doing things, serious things, and suffering no consequences,” he explained. “Supervision and social services, I’m not against that, but it’s not punishment. ... At some point you have to say, ‘You already violated society’s trust, and we’re not going to let you do it again.’”
But Michael Glennon, a trial attorney at Keches Law who once led the Suffolk Juvenile Unit, said because so few juvenile cases actually result in incarceration, or even much time spent in court, the better form of “punishment” is actually the long-term accountability provided by diversion programs. In many cases, he added, prosecution only results in children being pulled away from any existing support they have, without offering any resources to help them make better choices once they reenter society.
“The justice system is really not equipped to provide the support and resources a lot of these kids need. ... It’s like surgery with a chain saw,” he said. “When people say there should be more punishment for these kids, all they’re asking for is future recidivism.”
Glennon acknowledged that, for the most serious offenders who need to be removed from society for six months or more, the Department for Youth Services — the state’s juvenile correctional facility — can be very effective at providing structure, and helping them learn over time how not to harm others. But for the majority of cases, he said, diversion is the best opportunity for young adults to seek treatment and support, under the steady supervision of numerous court officers and community partners.
“With a lot of these youth, we’re talking about lifelong family struggles, and something the [traditional] court system can never do is force family therapy, family interventions, family treatment,” Glennon said. “Diversion can do that.”
Chester, of the Columbia Justice Lab, also noted that because diversion occurs either post-arrest or post-arraignment, there’s “nothing preventing the government from prosecuting a young person for the offense if it doesn’t work out. It’s not an either-or decision.”
Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, said particularly for conflict-related offenses, the social supports included in diversion can be very effective at helping young people learn from offenses often driven by their emotions.
“These types of fights and conflicts, diversion programs do a really good job at getting young people to understand the harm they’ve caused, but also the underlying causes that led them to act out, whether through anger management or counseling,” he said. “We can’t overlook the importance of diversion just because we’ve had these viral video moments.”
Smith added it’s important for prosecutors — who play a major role in deciding whether to divert or prosecute a child — to consider the difficult life circumstances and mental health challenges young people might be facing when they get into trouble, and be open to second, third, or even fourth chances. If someone successfully completed diversion once before, he said, that’s a sign the child can only benefit from reintroducing that extra structure and support.
“Our response should not be to say, ‘You had your bite at the apple already, and now we’re going to punish you,’“ he said.
But Smith stressed that society’s responsibility to point kids away from a life of crime does not end with the justice system, and called on city and state officials to step up.
“On the city level as well as state, we have to make significant investments in adolescent mental health support, and restorative justice,” he said, “and any type of programming shown to be effective at helping a young person change their behavior and not reoffend.”