Opinion: Let’s Give Police More Options to Help Md.’s Youth

Police
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Maryland’s Juvenile Justice Reform Council has wrapped up its final report and recommendations, and the associated legislative package is making its way through the General Assembly. Several of those recommendations focus on giving law enforcement agencies more diversion options for youth. Amid calls to “defund the police,” lawmakers would be well served to focus on alternatives to arrest in the coming months as constituents look to hold them accountable.

Diversion, at its core, represents policies and programs that seek to direct youth away from the justice system or further criminal processing. Research shows that diversion generally decreases a young person’s likelihood of re-arrest, as compared with a formal referral to the juvenile justice system.

That’s good for public safety, and studies also show it’s good for young people themselves. Research has consistently shown that formal processing in the juvenile justice system is associated with poorer life outcomes — including lower educational achievement and more limited employment opportunities. Yet, while early diversion by law enforcement is good policy, it’s not happening consistently in many places in Maryland.

Historically, that has included Baltimore.

2019 assessment of diversion practices required by the U.S. Department of Justice Consent Decree found that the Baltimore Police Department and the city did divert some youth, but without clear guidelines for when and how law enforcement should use diversion. In fact, diversion occurred only after arresting, transporting and booking young people downtown — undercutting the benefits of diversion with a process that’s not only harmful for youth, but incredibly inefficient for a police department that’s understaffed.

Additionally, recent research outlines significant variation in which county and municipal agencies in Maryland participate in diversion programs.

As of December 2020, Allegany, Carroll and most of the counties along the Eastern Shore did not report any county-wide law enforcement youth diversion programs. Even where programs existed, agencies reported large differences in programming components — such as the criteria for diversion, types of programming offered, referral processes and level of police involvement — as well as program outcomes. Inconsistent funding, low referrals and leadership changes have caused programs to lapse or end.

This means that many young people in Maryland don’t have equal or consistent access to earlier, effective diversion programs, thus putting them at higher risk of continued contact with the juvenile justice system. It also means that many communities have to deal with avoidable crime and economic harm at the same time they see their taxpayer dollars go toward less effective, more expensive responses, like incarceration.

Fortunately, places like Baltimore are now trying to address barriers to diversion.

The Baltimore Police Department recently released a new policy on “Interactions with Youth” that formalizes a commitment to early diversion. It includes a framework that’ll allow BPD officers to divert youth directly to a network of community-based organizations that’ll field referrals and connect youth to appropriate services.

The Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement is spearheading the development of that network, which will help Baltimore develop more effective ways of intervening with young people at the earliest possible opportunity. Likewise, multiple law enforcement agencies without diversion programs expressed interest in creating them and a few agencies are already developing programs.

Maryland lawmakers should follow the data-driven recommendations of the JJRC by providing or further augmenting law enforcement capacity to offer diversion. They can do this by supporting statewide data collection and funding for police diversion programs as well as by evaluating the impact of current programs offered. They can also expand opportunities for police to divert youth prior to an arrest by allowing them to issue citations for misdemeanors.

Many of these actions are already supported in other places.

In Florida, each judicial circuit must have a civil citation or alternatives-to-arrest program for youth. And the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice is required to publish local data and updated guidelines regularly around best practices for such programs. Historically, youth who are given these options in Florida have about a 5%12-month recidivism rate whereas youth diverted later in the criminal justice process or placed on probation have an 11% or 18% 12-month recidivism rate, respectively.

It’s now time for Maryland lawmakers to give police more options to help Maryland’s youth and limit long-term damage to youth who needlessly go through the criminal justice system when there are viable alternatives.

Lucky for them, the new recommendations by the JJRC offer a great place to start.

— TIANA DAVIS AND EMILY MOONEY

Tiana Davis is the policy director for equity and justice at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, which conducted the Baltimore Youth Diversion Assessment and helps coordinate the People’s Commission to Decriminalize Maryland (@decrimmaryland). She is a resident of Baltimore City. Emily Mooney (@emilymmooney) is a resident policy fellow at the R Street Institute, an ally of the Maryland Youth Justice Coalition.