Today, the Edmonton Police Service’s (EPS) Community Safety and Well-being Bureau (CSWB) is pleased to announce their work to reduce youth involvement in the criminal justice system with the establishment of the DIVERSIONfirst program.
“Edmonton has many organizations dedicated to helping youth who have conflicted with the law or are at risk of being introduced to a criminal lifestyle,” said Superintendent Nicole Chapdelaine of the Service’s Integrated Community Safety Division.
“Our Bureau recognizes that our officers play an essential role in redirecting youth who may become involved with the criminal justice system. Rather than making an arrest, we saw an opportunity to divert them toward programs and services that provide comprehensive support while creating meaningful consequences that are educational rather than punitive.”
A pilot program that began out of EPS’ West Division in September 2018, DIVERSIONfirst connects young, first-time non-violent offenders (12-17 years old) to community organizations and family supports that offer a wide range of services dedicated to mentoring and improving the lives of youth to help them build a foundation for a positive future, away from crime.
At the time of inception, the CSWB anticipated that 20 youths might get referred. Several months later, when the pilot was complete, nearly 80 youths had been referred by patrol members, School Resource Officers, Beat Officers, and others. Since its humble beginnings, the DIVERSIONfirst program has expanded city-wide, with its number of participants now exceeding 250 youth.
A partnership between the EPS and the YMCA of Northern Alberta, and in collaboration with program community partners, DIVERSIONfirst supports youth as they navigate a customized plan that holds them accountable for their behaviour, addresses underlying issues and provides them with opportunities to connect to local community resources.
“Our goal is to reduce youth’s chances of reoffending and instead empower them with community resources,” said EPS Sergeant Kendall Booth of the DIVERSIONfirst Unit. “In addition to building and fostering positive relationships between youth and police, we are giving youth a chance to recognize how their actions impact others, while connecting them with community resources that help them to better prepare for their future.”
Referrals to the DIVERSIONfirst program are founded on officer discretion. At the point of arrest, a constable can instead refer a youth to the program. DIVERSIONfirst staff will then follow up with the youth and their guardian(s) to further assess the youth’s suitability for the program. Once both parties have committed to participating, an in-person meeting takes place with DIVERSIONfirst members and community partners. The YMCA Youth Diversion program assists with these meetings by supporting the youth and their family with accountability and agreement items.
“Ensuring the right support is provided at the right time is important. Once a youth referral is received, our Youth Diversion program staff work alongside DIVERSIONfirst officers to ensure the individual needs of each youth and their personal network are met,” said Michael Peters, Program Manager of Community and Housing Initiatives at YMCA of Northern Alberta.
“Staff create personalized plans that help youth identify how their behaviour impacts others, addresses underlying issues, and provides them with opportunities to connect to local agencies to ensure they receive extra support they may require. By using restorative justice principles, we’re meeting youth where they’re at as well as holding them accountable — bringing both law enforcement and community together to build meaningful relationships with youth and their family.”
To be eligible, youths who have committed non-violent offenses like shoplifting or mischief must be willing to participate in the program, have no more than a limited criminal history, and a supportive guardian involved.
Once the youth and their guardian commit to participating and the program begins, DIVERSIONfirst constables continue supporting youth and work along side community partners throughout the youth’s participation to help identify challenges, navigate services, provide youth engagement opportunities, and engage families wherever appropriate.