On Wednesday, a majority of police commissioners signaled their support for creating a new diversion program for people under 18 who are suspected of crimes.
The proposal would see youth suspected of criminal activity steered away from the standard justice system, and into more “restorative justice” before an arrest. Beyond an initial referral, the child would have very little contact with the police or the Juvenile Probation Department, and no arrest would go on their record.
Though the meeting Wednesday was purely informational and did not include a vote, the president of the commission, Cindy Elias, instructed staff to calendar the topic again in July, so the commission could “get this thing in execution mode rather than planning mode.”
The San Francisco chief of police and representatives from the Juvenile Probation Department were also in support.
“I really do believe in this diversion program,” said Police Chief Bill Scott. “We need to make it work for our city.” He emphasized the importance of including victims’ needs as well as keeping kids out of the “pipeline” of the criminal justice system.
San Francisco already has some similar programs in place. The Community Assessment & Resource Center is one of several groups that aims to help kids “make wrongs right and learn from their mistakes” through mentoring, assistance with community service, therapy, sports programs, and other tools.
The new program would go further by keeping children out of the criminal justice system before they are arrested. Instead of being taken to a police station and booked, minors would agree to join the program and then be released to their parents. Someone from the program would then contact them in the next day or so to begin.
“Young people who touch the adjudication and juvenile probation system oftentimes have worse outcomes,” said commissioner Jesus Yáñez. “So we need to look for other solutions.”
In Los Angeles, pre-arrest diversion has been used for decades. Centinela Youth Services director Jessica Ellis, who helps run their program, told commissioners she had found that recidivism is lower in pre-arrest diversions than post-arrest diversions.
Ellis added that even minor arrests can follow young people for a long time: “Sealing juvenile records is not as smooth or comprehensive a process as people assume.” And, she said, multiple studies have drawn a link between arrests and dropping out of school, unemployment, and welfare dependency, even when the arrests do not lead to convictions.
David Muhammad, director of a similar but more recent scheme in Oakland, said that some 40 young people participated in his program in its first two years. Over three-quarters completed the six-to-nine-month scheme, he said, and only three kids were rearrested.
In the past, changes to the city’s juvenile justice system have moved slowly. San Francisco resolved to close its 150-bed juvenile detention facility back in 2019, but it is still open today.
One possible sticking point in any new scheme may lie in figuring out which crimes will be eligible for diversion. In the Oakland program, around two-thirds of referrals were for felonies, including grand theft auto and burglary. In Los Angeles, pre-arrest diversion can be used for drug sales, robberies, and misdemeanor sexual batteries, among other offenses.
Still, advocates and non-profit leaders were pleased to see the idea gaining traction. Dawn Stueckle, executive director of Sunset Youth Services, said that the city had plenty of resources to implement the change and just had to “get out of its own way.”
“I’m excited that you’re excited,” Stueckle told Chief Scott and the commissioners.
“Let’s do this.”