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Toolkit on Diversion and Alternatives to Detention



Cost Effectiveness

• Introduction
• 1. States Parties are obligated to commit resources to the implementation of the rights contained in the CRC
• 2. What are the costs involved for diversion & alternatives compared to detention?
• 3. Where is the proof that diversion & alternatives are less costly than detention?
• Summary
The importance of diversion and alternatives to children and society has been demonstrated in the previous sections. However, in spite of the arguments in favour of child rights, child development, public safety, recidivism, conflict resolution and victim/survivor impact, governments can nevertheless sometimes be reluctant to invest politically and financially in diversion and alternatives. The two sets of reasons set out here in Section D – cost effectiveness and national security – are deliberately aimed at outlining the benefits of diversion and alternatives directly for governments, in addition to their legal obligations as States Parties to the CRC.
In terms of cost effectiveness, the first part of this section offers a reminder of States’ obligations under the CRC to commit resources to the implementation of child rights (including within the justice system); the second part looks at what type of costs are involved with diversion and alternatives compared to detention; and the third part compiles research and evaluations of actual cost-benefit analyses from around the world.
1. States Parties are obligated to commit resources to the implementation of the rights contained in the CRC
“States Parties shall undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in the present Convention. With regard to economic, social and cultural rights, States Parties shall undertake such measures to the maximum extent of their available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international co-operation” (Article 4 of the CRC). This obligation includes the implementation of a child justice system which conforms to the CRC aims and standards as set out in Articles 37b and 40 – in other words a system with diversion and alternatives as integral components.

“A government’s responsibility to fulfil its commitments in terms of the CRC may be summarized as follows: governments are not required to deliver immediately on all child rights, but this does not mean they can avoid allocating any resources to children. A government must instead be able to show that it is giving priority to children’s rights when it decides how to allocate the country’s resources. The obligation goes further: The government must be able to demonstrate that it will do as much as possible in as short a time as possible to protect children’s rights, using the available resources effectively and efficiently. Governments should give priority to the rapid delivery of basic core services, improving them over time until all children’s rights are fully realized. Thus, retrogressive steps of cutting back on spending for children are not acceptable. In states where even the core minimum rights are not resourced, the government should demonstrate that this is due to a genuine lack of resources, and it must have a plan to show how it will deliver on its obligations in the future.”[1]

This means that governments need to show that they are prioritising child rights in budget allocation – including for criminal justice systems. Cutting back spending in the area of justice for children in conflict with the law is not acceptable. In other words, governments are already spending funds on such justice systems. But they need to ensure that these funds are being directed towards child rights-based justice systems which, by definition, prioritise prevention, diversion and alternatives to detention for children in conflict with the law. Article 4 acknowledges the need for ‘international co-operation’ and this aspect is dealt with in Section F2 of the toolkit 'Why does UNICEF promote diversion and alternatives? / Technical support'.

The good news is that prevention, diversion and alternatives, in addition to being ‘necessary’ components of child justice systems, can actually save money: money which - in many countries - is already being spent on costly detention facilities with high recidivism rates can be spent more effectively by investing in diversion and alternatives - thus complying with CRC obligations and with better outcomes all round for children, society, government and professionals.

In Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and other countries with small populations, numbers of children in the formal justice system and in detention may be low: it may not be the case that significant resources are already being spent on costly detention facilities. It may well be that traditional and non-formal justice systems are already handling the vast majority of cases at community level. In such contexts, however, there is often still the need to reform justice for children in conflict with the law - including traditional and non-formal systems - so that it conforms with child rights and international standards. It is important that during these reform efforts, emphasis is placed on prevention, diversion and alternatives rather than bringing children into formal systems and constructing costly detention facilities. The economic arguments presented in this section therefore still apply.

2. What are the costs involved for diversion & alternatives compared to detention?
See the document linked below for a comparison of the types of costs involved in diversion and alternatives programmes compared to detention.
Download ‘What are the costs involved for diversion & alternatives compared to detention?’

Issues to consider in relation to cost:[2]
     1. Investment in prevention and early intervention (even before diversion and alternatives become necessary) saves money in the long term.
     2. Longer-term costs such as recidivism and loss to the economy of potentially productive citizens are much harder to measure, but they cannot be ignored.
     3. Costs need to take into account the numbers of children passing through the system based on current estimates. However, longer term projections can also take into account possible reduced numbers of children passing through the system in the future (if prevention of first-time and re-offending is being invested in) if this reduction is justified – i.e. based on quality evaluations. Longer term projections will also need to take into account inflation.
     4. New programmes, such as diversion and alternatives, are likely to incur initial set-up costs in addition to ongoing running costs. However, cost-benefit analyses have shown that this initial additional expenditure reaps savings down the line. Also, set-up costs for diversion and alternatives programmes are still much less than for new detention centres.
     5. In some countries, implementation of diversion and alternatives might result in a reduction in cost to the criminal justice system but a possible increase in cost to social welfare systems. However, these savings and expenses may balance each other out. This scenario may be particularly relevant in countries where social welfare systems are currently significantly under-developed and under-resourced. This highlights the importance of a collaborative approach to budgeting across departments so that savings in one area are re-allocated to areas of increased expenditure.
     6. Some reforms may require significant forward planning in terms of human resources: for example, attracting more students to take up social work qualifications in order to fill job vacancies which are likely to arise in particular sectors.
     7. It is acknowledged that some form of detention will still be required within the child justice system to cater for the minority of cases for whom diversion and alternatives are not appropriate (i.e. violent offenders). However, reduction in the use of formal processes and detention for the majority will mean that existing resources (human and financial) in these areas can be concentrated on these minority intensive cases, resulting in a better quality and more effective rehabilitation detention focus.
     8. A cost-benefit analysis can compare: 1) the current system for children in conflict with the law; 2) an ‘ideal’ system (‘full implementation’ of proposed reforms); 3) a ‘roll-out scenario’ (partial or half-way implementation which represents costing in the transition period).
     9. Be careful to compare ‘like with like’: the better quality the intervention, the more it is likely to cost; for advocacy purposes it is not fair to compare a high quality diversion programme (relatively higher cost) with a low quality detention facility (relatively lower cost, although it may be violating children’s rights in terms of conditions of detention).
     10.  Costings need to take into account: the different levels of criminal activity in metropolitan, urban and rural areas; annual expenditure – at both national and provincial level if responsibilities are divided in this way – per government department. 
3. Where is the proof that diversion & alternatives are less costly than detention?
The Committee on the Rights of the Child states that “It is in line with the principles set out in article 40(1) of CRC to deal with all such cases [first-time and minor offences] without resorting to criminal law procedures in court. In addition to avoiding stigmatization, this approach has good results for children and is in the interests of public safety, and has proven to be more cost-effective” (General Comment 10, paragraph 25, emphasis added).
In certain contexts diversion and alternatives can often be cheaper than formal court processes and detention due to:
     • Reduced staff costs (potentially more involvement of social workers, community leaders and civil society organisations but potentially less involvement of prosecutors, judges, public defenders, court support staff (clerks, administrators, cleaners, cooks) and penitentiary / correctional staff);
     • Reduced administrative costs (water; electricity; IT; telephone; office rent / maintenance / repairs / cleaning; accounting / financial): detention costs are likely to be higher due to the more complex infrastructure needed for detention facilities compared to basic office costs for diversion and alternatives programmes;
     • Reduced 'provision' costs associated with detention (food, clothing, bedding, hygiene equipment, healthcare, court time, security costs - e.g. fencing, lighting and surveillance equipment);
     • Reduced costs related to recidivism: as demonstrated by some studies, diversion and alternatives have in certain cases been proven to tackle recidivism more effectively than detention; this also leads to cost savings to the adult criminal justice system if a child is prevented from offending beyond the age of 18;
     • Reduced health / societal costs associated with substance abuse (including alcoholism): diversion and alternatives can tackle these issues more effectively than detention;
     • Reduced mental and physical health / societal costs associated with abuse (which is often experienced by children in detention) – e.g. medical care and ongoing psychological support;
     • Reduced public health costs associated with HIV/AIDS, TB and other diseases / infections which are often ‘incubated’ in detention facilities;
     • Increased tax revenue / other contributions to the economy: successful diversion and alternatives programmes can promote more effective social and economic reintegration of offenders compared to detention, helping them to become economically active citizens who are better integrated into family support systems and less of a drain on the social welfare system.

There are a large number of studies and evaluations which have been conducted over the years looking at cost-benefit analyses of prevention, diversion and alternatives in comparison with detention and a summary is provided in the document linked below. However, an example of some of these findings is provided here for the purposes of illustration.

Perhaps the most comprehensive and extensive analysis performed to date relates to the costing of the draft Child Justice Bill in South Africa. The process undertaken, methodology and lessons learned are included later in the ‘how’ section of this toolkit in relation to 'legislation' as a pdf on the right side. Suffice it to say for now that, based on an extremely rigorous exercise:
     • “The scenario analysis […] demonstrated a fact often advocated but rarely illustrated: if more is spent on prevention and early intervention services, the system will realize significant costs savings down the line.”
     • “The updated cost-effectiveness analysis confirmed the findings of the earlier analysis: the government was likely to realize significant overall savings from full implementation of the Child Justice Bill [which places a much greater emphasis on diversion and alternatives compared to the existing system against which it was being compared]. The key to realizing savings is linked to how children would be processed in the new system. Some departments, such as Social Development, would need to spend more money in the proposed system than they were spending in the current system. But spending more in the early stages on assessment, preliminary inquiry and diversion would result in savings in connection with trial and detention.”

Another example which supports these findings is a rigorous meta-analysis conducted in 2001 by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) in the US. This involved a review of 400 evaluations of prevention, diversion and alternatives programmes published in the previous 25 years, specifically selected for their high quality evaluation methodology. Adjusting costs to the value of the US dollar in the year 2000, diversion and alternatives programmes were shown to have a positive benefit-cost ratio / return of between $27.33 and $44.91 for every $1 invested (Functional Family Therapy $27.33; Multi-Systemic Therapy $27.81; Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care $42.70; Aggression Replacement Training $44.91). Although this analysis was conducted specifically for the Washington State context, the findings are nonetheless impressive.[3] See the summary document linked below for further details of this study.

A summary has been prepared for this toolkit compiling the results of various studies, evaluations and meta-analyses which include information on costings and/or cost benefit analyses of diversion and alternatives compared to detention.

Download ‘Compilation of evidence showing positive cost benefits of diversion and alternatives compared to detention’ 


Many states are already spending large amounts of money on child justice systems. However, they have a legal obligation under the CRC to be investing in child justice systems which are child rights-based (and which by CRC definition include diversion and alternatives). Investment in prevention, diversion and alternatives is more cost-effective than investment in systems which have an over-reliance on detention. Even if diversion and alternatives programmes result in additional initial set-up costs, this money is recouped in the medium term and these costs are still far less than investment in new detention centres. Running costs for diversion and alternatives are often much less than for detention facilities. If reforms lead to a reduction in criminal justice costs but an increase in social welfare costs then this may still be balanced out overall, although collaborative budgeting may be needed across departments to ensure that savings are allocated to areas of increased expenditure. Furthermore, given the evidence for reduced recidivism as a result of diversion and alternatives in comparison with formal processing and detention, there are extremely important long-term savings to be made. In Small Island Developing States or other small population countries where there is not currently a great focus on detention and formal systems, the economic arguments here are still important to ensure that during reform of traditional and non-formal justice systems to bring them in line with international standards, emphasis is placed on prevention, diversion and alternatives rather than bringing children into formal systems and constructing costly detention facilities.
[All documents referenced here are available in the 'Resources' section of the toolkit].
1. Reforming Child Law in South Africa: Budgeting and Implementation Planning, Dr Ann Skelton, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, reprinted 2009, P.11, drawing in part on Streak, J., Monitoring Government Budgets to Advance Child Rights: A guide for NGOs, Institute for Democracy in South Africa, Cape Town, 2003. See also the Implementation Handbook on the Convention on the Rights of the Child in relation to Article 4, and the Committee on the Rights of the Child General Comment No. 5 on 'General measures of implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (arts. 4, 42 and 44, para. 6)', 2003, for further details on this matter in general.
2. Based largely on the experience of costing the South African Child Justice Bill, as documented in Skelton, op cit, pp.22-25.
3. All information about the WISPP meta-analysis has been sourced from David M. Osher, Mary Magee Quinn, Jeffrey M. Poirier, Robert B. Rutherford, ‘Deconstructing the pipeline: Using efficacy, effectiveness, and cost-benefit data to reduce minority youth incarceration’, in New Directions for Youth Development, Volume 2003, Issue 99 , Pages 91 – 120.

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