Youth who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) and especially young adults of transition age, should be involved in planning for life after high school as early as possible and no later than age 16. Transition services should stem from the individual youth’s needs and strengths, ensuring that planning takes into account his or her interests, preferences, and desires for the future.
While it is recognized that some youth commit serious offenses and may need to be confined within a secure setting, research has shown that many youth in the juvenile justice system are there for relatively minor offenses, have significant mental health disorders, and end up in out-of-home placement or on probation by default.1 Diversion programs are therefore beneficial alternatives to initial or continued formal processing of youth in the juvenile delinquency system.
Why Diversion Programs?
The purpose of diversion programs is to redirect youthful offenders from the justice system through programming, supervision, and supports. Arguments that support diversion programs include the following:
- Diverting youth who have committed minor offenses away from the system and towards community-based treatment involving the youth's family and service/support options unique to the individual's needs is a more appropriate response than confinement. Employing diversion programs rather than going through the formal system is a more productive way of addressing and preventing future delinquency, thus reducing recidivism. 2It grants youth the chance to alter their trajectory and decision making moving forward without unnecessary and long-lasting punitive consequences.
- Formally processing youth through the juvenile justice system does more harm than good by perpetuating delinquency through a stigmatizing ”labeling” process. Labeling youth as delinquent can create a self-fulfilling prophesy and expose youth to circumstances within juvenile and adult correctional institutions that may actually increase delinquency.3
- The cost of community-based services and diversion programs is significantly less than the cost of incarceration and expensive out-of-home or residential placement facilities.4 As such, implementing diversion programming for youth adjudicated delinquent reduces system costs and preserves necessary public resources for the handling of more serious crimes.
What Do Diversion Programs Look Like?
Diversion programs are typically designed to provide youth with experiences that are different from traditional juvenile justice experiences. Diversion decisions and activities usually occur at the earliest stages of involvement in the juvenile justice system; however, diversion initiatives can be put in place at later stages of justice processing with the primary goal of reducing costly out-of-home placements.
The structure and operation of diversion programs vary, but the overall goals are typically the same: namely, to address delinquent behavior informally in the community in an effort to prevent subsequent offending.5 Some diversion programs are established to provide specialized programs to better meet the needs of youth with mental health and/or substance abuse concerns. Typical services provided for youth and families in diversion programs include one or more of the following:
- Screening and assessment
- Education and tutorial services
- Victim awareness classes and activities
- Service-learning programs
- Substance use education and counseling
- Job skills training
- Mental health treatment
- Crisis intervention
- Family counseling
- Parenting skill development
- Supports for rebuilding family relationships
- Quality recreation and organized sports programs
According to the National Center on Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, services delivered through diversion programs typically occur in the community either on school campuses, on community sites, or in the youth’s home.
What are the Benefits of Diversion Programs?
The benefits of diversion programs have been well documented. Four of the major benefits of successful diversion programs are:
- a reduction of premature involvement in the “deep end” of the juvenile delinquency system
- a reduction in out-of-home placements, especially for younger children
- maintaining youth connectedness and engagement in the community by keeping the youth in their environment
- a reduction in cost compared to court processing and/or secure placement.6
Diversion can be an integral part of any jurisdiction’s graduated continuum of options for youth already involved or at risk of becoming involved with the juvenile justice system.
In recent years more research has been conducted exploring the potential harms of diversion programs as well, suggesting that continued work on the efficacy and implementation of diversion programming is necessary. Drawbacks of diversion programming may include: net widening (assigning diversion programming to youth who otherwise would not have been in contact with the justice system, rather than exclusively implementing diversion interventions on the target population of delinquent youth who without diversion efforts would be in the deep end of the juvenile justice system), increased recidivism due to the low-stakes consequences that youth perceive from diversion measures, and inequitable access to and use of diversion programming wherein Black and other non-White youth are disproportionately ushered into the formal juvenile justice system rather than being offered diversion programming to the extent of their White counterparts. 7
Enduring analysis of diversion-centered graduated sanctions continues, and the advancement of research on diversion programming best practices is both inevitable and necessary.
This website lists different types and examples of diversion programs offered by the federal government, particularly in Washington, DC, and the surrounding area.
Diversion Programs I-Guide
This guide provides an overview of the common implementation process for diversion programs, references a variety of diversion research, and includes suggestions on how to deal with challenges in implementation. Juvenile justice professionals can use this guide as they prepare to implement a pre-adjudication diversion program.
Environmental Scan of Developmentally Appropriate Criminal Justice Responses to Justice-Involved Young Adults (PDF, 87 pages)
This report presents findings of an environmental scan that identified programs addressing the developmental needs of young adults involved in the criminal justice system. It also discusses legislation with provisions sensitive to the developmental level and maturation of justice-involved young adults.
Juvenile Diversion Guidebook (PDF, 168 pages)
This guidebook clarifies what diversion is, discusses how to best develop and improve diversion programs, and describes effective models of change within juvenile diversion. Included is a Juvenile Diversion Workbook that provides practitioners with structure during their planning and implementation processes. This guidebook discusses only pre-trial diversion and does not focus on detention diversion programs that occur post-adjudication.
Practical Tips for Juvenile Drug Treatment Courts to Implement (PDF, 13 pages)
This guide describes the objectives outlined in OJJDP’s Juvenile Drug Treatment Guidelines (PDF, 60 pages) and provides suggested short-term and long-term actions related to each objective. Juvenile drug treatment courts (JDTC) can use this information to guide the implementation, operation, and evaluation of their practices.
Psychiatric Disorders in Youth After Detention (PDF, 20 pages)
This bulletin discusses long-term persistence trends of psychiatric disorders in youth who have been involved in the juvenile justice system. The document demonstrates the importance of continued and accessible treatment for youth during their time of incarceration and after reentry. Due to mental health disorders present for many previously incarcerated youth long after detention, it is recommended that more mental health support be provided to youth during incarceration or placement and continued years after release.
Randomized Controlled Trials of Criminal Justice Programs and Practices (Funding Opportunity) (PDF, 8 pages)
This ongoing request for proposals seeks grant applications to conduct randomized controlled trials of criminal justice programs and practices. The ultimate goal of this effort is to build credible evidence about “what works” to improve criminal justice outcomes and, in particular, grow the number of criminal justice interventions rigorously shown to better people’s lives.
1 Skowyra & Powell, 2006
2 Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, National Juvenile Defender Center, National Youth Screening and Assessment Project, & Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps, 2011
3 Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, National Juvenile Defender Center, National Youth Screening and Assessment Project & Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps, 2011
4 Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, National Juvenile Defender Center, National Youth Screening and Assessment Project & Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps, 2011
5 Stewart, 2008
6 Dembo, Wareham & Schmeidler, 2005; Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, National Juvenile Defender Center, National Youth Screening and Assessment Project, & Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps, 2011
7 Farrell, Betsinger & Hammond, 2018
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